WASHINGTON – Grab a nice dinner and save room for popcorn. Hollywood has produced the year’s best date movie: “Silver Linings Playbook,” a romantic comedy filled with football, a work of light humor with dark undertones and a unique blend of “Ordinary People,” “Dirty Dancing” and “The Fighter.”
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper)’s life turned on a dime when he walked in on his wife Nikki having an affair. He beat her lover to a pulp and was sent to a mental institution, where he was taught to look for “silver linings,” turning negatives into positives with the motto “excelsior” (Latin for “ever upward”).
After his release, he shares this approach with his therapist, Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher), and his parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a rabid Philadelphia Eagles fan and gambling addict who becomes extremely superstitious (borderline OCD) on game day.
Battling bipolar disorder and his ex-wife’s restraining order, Pat goes for long runs to lose weight and reads every book on his wife’s high school teaching syllabus in an attempt to win her back.
One day, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow working through her own problems. She tells Pat she’ll sneak a letter to Nikki if he’ll help her train for a dance competition. Desperate, he takes the bait, not knowing that the big event falls on the same day as the Eagles/Cowboys game, where his dad wants him around for good luck.
Based on a book by Matthew Quick, the film is written and directed by David O. Russell, who tries to recapture the magic of “The Fighter,” modeling Cooper’s Pat after Christian Bale’s Dicky, two characters taking drugs to battle their inner demons.
Cooper is growing as an actor, no longer just a punchline in “Wedding Crashers” (2005) and “The Hangover” (2009). Still, Bale benefited from being in the Supporting Actor category, while Cooper would have to battle for Lead Actor. You can almost imagine Cooper chilling with his Wolfpack, throwing back beers and saying, “OF COURSE I have to go up against Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham friggin’ Lincoln.”
Cooper’s best scenes come with his “Limitless” (2011) co-star Robert De Niro, who gives arguably his best performance since “Meet the Parents” (2000). Jacki Weaver is a little more forgettable as the mother, as are Julia Styles and Chris Tucker for their lack of screentime. But I’m OK with that, as it allows more time to watch the film’s best performance, that of Jennifer Lawrence.
Known to teens everywhere as Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” (2012), Lawrence plays Tiffany with the look of Juliette Lewis and the intensity of her Oscar-nominated performance in “Winter’s Bone” (2010). Her performance is just the right blend of feisty and vulnerable, becoming the moral compass of the film and a potential Oscar nominee.
The performances show the benefit of an actor’s director like Russell, who did “Three Kings” (1999) and “I Heart Huckabees” (2004) before directing both Bale and Melissa Leo to Oscars in “The Fighter” (2010). It’s important to note “The Fighter” also earned Russell his first Best Director nomination, displaying a gritty visual style that could earn him another nomination for “Playbook.”
Russell has full control over what’s happening in his frame, symbolically placing a family photo in the background as Pat’s friend Ronnie (Jon Ortiz) describes the pressure of fatherhood, or a portrait of Jesus in the background during Cooper’s “resurrection,” foreshadowing his quote a few scenes later: “Sundays are my favorite days again.”
Russell’s direction is at times stronger than his semi-formulaic script. If you’ve seen enough movies, you know the playbook, detecting the exposition and predicting the rises and falls as they come. Still, we’re constantly engaged due to Russell’s stellar character development.
The script carefully reveals Pat and Tiffany’s motivations. We start off viewing Tiffany like the many guys in her life, a cheap one-night stand. That is until we learn how her husband died, and suddenly we understand her actions.
As for Pat, it’s no coincidence he wears a jersey of DeSean Jackson, who once spiked the ball on the one yard line. De Niro says this is exactly how Pat lives his life, getting so close to the goal line, then doing something to sabotage himself, “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
The football analogies are a reminder of just how much football has become a part of our cultural imagination. If the ’70s and ’80s brought us a string of boxing and baseball classics (“Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams”), the last 20 years have belonged to football, from “Rudy” to “Jerry Maguire,” “Remember the Titans” to “Friday Night Lights,” “The Blind Side” to “Big Fan.”
“Silver Linings Playbook” may be the most haunting of all of them, layering the soundtrack with Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” Pat’s wedding song and the tune that was playing the night he found his wife in the shower with another man. It’s fitting that Pat overcomes this disturbing past to another Stevie song, “Don’t You Worry About a Thing.” Russell knows how melodies bring back memories, songs haunting us in the key of life like “As Time Goes By” in “Casablanca” (1942).
Russell even shows Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner dancing in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), a classic video on Pat’s iPod, a microcosm for the film’s traditional storytelling beneath a modern attitude.
Nit-pickers can find a few cheesy moments, like Chris Tucker teaching dance moves, and an admittedly Hollywood ending. But it works because it’s been properly set up, as Cooper reads his wife’s syllabus and becomes furious at Hemingway for the depressing ending of “A Farewell to Arms.” He wonders that with all the trouble in the world, why can’t more stories be positive?
Uplifting films are hard to pull off without being cliche, an uphill battle articulated by Pat himself: “You have to do everything you can, and if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.”
Here, Russell does everything he can with a potential chick flick stinker, finding enough silver linings to create something quite profound.