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Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell’s Syrupy Sprint for Oscar

The contrivances start to pile up in the less nerve-wracking, somewhat saccharine second half.

by
John Boot

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November 21, 2012 - 8:00 am
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Silver Linings Playbook is, like its hero, bipolar and unstable. What at first looks like a low-budget, gritty indie character study about mental illness eventually turns into a shameless shower of Hollywood syrup. In other words, it has Oscar nominations written all over it.

Start with Bradley Cooper as Pat, a Philadelphia schoolteacher who, as he is being driven home from a Baltimore mental institution by his mother (Jacki Weaver), is already acting a little weird. Gradually it emerges why he was in the hospital: He nearly beat to death a man he caught with his wife in the shower, and he remains obsessed with reconciling with her.

David O. Russell, who directed Silver Linings and wrote it, adapting a novel by Matthew Quick, got started with amusing little movies like Flirting with Disaster but a couple of years later made a more conventional play for Oscars, The Fighter (which won both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo top honors in supporting roles). Nowadays his strategy seems to be to use his indie credibility as the castor oil that makes grouchy critics swallow much more than a spoonful of sugar in this conventional, formulaic crowd-pleaser.

Pat gets invited to a dinner party where he shows up inappropriately attired in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey – no. 10, for DeSean Jackson, the wide receiver whose infamous spiking of a football at the one yard line is repeatedly mentioned as a metaphor for Pat’s own habit of messing up the easy stuff. But he meets a fellow victim of instability, Tiffany (a superb Jennifer Lawrence, who is sure to get another Oscar nomination for this performance), whose husband recently died under vaguely described circumstances.

Meanwhile, staying with his parents in a working-class Philly neighborhood, Pat keeps having mini breakdowns (the breathless scene in which he searches for an old wedding video while Russell pounds a Led Zeppelin song in the background is the best in the movie), getting unwelcome visits from a police officer assigned to his case, and getting in arguments with his dad (Robert De Niro). The old man’s slightly obsessive-compulsive habits and gambling on Philadelphia Eagles football games seem to prove that he is the crazy tree from which this young nutjob didn’t fall very far.

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For a good hour or so, Russell’s movie is intriguing because you can’t quite figure out where it’s going – tragedy? Farce? The lead character is less than appealing on many occasions, and it seems that he could be a threat to himself or others. Cooper generally plays a ladies’ man, and with excellent reason, but here Russell does his best to keep him from being too cuddly.

Cooper, who is not a great actor but pulls off this showy role well enough to inspire discussion about a possible Oscar consideration, appears with a strange scar across his nose (sustained, he claims, in “a weight-lifting accident”), his hair closely shorn, his beard scraggly. He is frequently clad in a garbage bag (which he wears while jogging, to lose weight). He’s a woeful figure who could at any moment find himself being dragged back to the mental hospital, from which a similarly situated friend (amusingly played by a startling Chris Tucker, who has been away for a while and looks it) keeps running away.

But the contrivances start to pile up in the less nerve-wracking, somewhat saccharine second half. In order to set up a big, Little Miss Sunshine-style ending, Tiffany demands that Pat take up intensive dance training with her so she can compete in a ballroom competition around Christmas. If only Pat and Tiffany can do well in the dance contest, all will be well and Pat’s dad (who has lost a ton of money on football) will be solvent again.

Doesn’t that all sound a little too…Pat? Yes, but then again, mental illness is enough of a drag. There’s no need to be depressing about it onscreen, and the dance scenes do have spark, thanks mainly to the considerable charms of Lawrence, the glamorous Hunger Games star who also got a Best Actress nomination for playing a hillbilly in Winter’s Bone. It’s a little unfortunate that her character turns so abruptly from dark and weird to sentimental and needy, but that’s Hollywood.

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Shutterstock image courtesy Gorgev

More current movie reviews from John Boot at PJ Lifestyle:

Argo: It’s Time to Take Ben Affleck Seriously as a Director

Time-Travel Thriller Looper Should Make Its Director a Hollywood Player

Spielberg’s Boring Lincoln Like Cramming for the Oscar Final

John Boot is the pen name of a conservative writer operating under deep cover in the liberal media.
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