Is Silver Linings Playbook an Oscar contender, or a playoff pretender? The answer is, probably maybe.
To be merely good in Hollywood these days seems good enough when the weekly box office results are announced. While some films deserve their status (see Skyfall, Lincoln, and The Avengers), others are simply head scratches. Still others are given such pre-release Oscar buzz that no manner of acting can match expectations. Such is the predicament for Silver Linings Playbook, which seeks to unravel the world of mental illness and one man's journey to escape it. But much like its venerated Philadelphia Eagles which parallels the tale, Linings is filled with promise but short on results and prone to unevenness.
Having been recently released from a mental hospital after a violent breakdown involving his cheating wife Nikki, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, Limitless) moves back into his parents' house in suburban Philadelphia. Forced into mandated therapy and a pill-popping regiment, Pat jogs his neighborhood streets dressed in a black garbage bag over his sweats, hoping to convince the courts and his off-screen wife that his improving outer physique matches his inward mental one. But Pat is far from back to normal - his mood swings begin in earnest after his release when he reads an Ernest Hemingway novel, awaking his parents in the middle of the night to ramble about the book's ending. But mom and dad aren't much better off: Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro, Goodfellas) has OCD and Dolores (Jackie Weaver, Five-Year Engagement) is kind but naive. Neither can understand their son's bi-polar behavior but are patient, loving parents who demand Pat Jr. get a plan and stick to his meds.
At a dinner with his childhood buddy, Pat meets the spastic, bruised, and socially antagonistic Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence,The Hunger Games), who seems to be the antithesis of what Pat needs. She's fouled-mouthed and sexually available to...well...everyone, including Pat whom she propositions soon after dinner turns into a disaster. Like Pat, Tiffany's mental issues occurred after an intense event (the death of her off-duty police officer husband), resulting in her firing and subsequent banishment to her parents' home. What Tiffany lacks in social graces she makes up as a brilliant tactician; she hatches a bizarre plan to win Pat over by promising to deliver an apology letter to Nikki if he trains to be her dance partner in an upcoming competition. There's an odd courtship between the two, with Tiffany stalking Pat during his runs and Pat pressing Tiffany on her office sexual escapades. Eventually, the two enter the competition when Nikki unexpectantly re-enters the picture. Faced with the real prospect of winning his wife back and his growing affection for Tiffany, Pat must somehow utilize his 'Excelsior' mantra gained while in the hospital to choose the right path, while his OCD-bookie father demands his 'juju' during any and all Eagles games.
If all this sounds a bit warp-speed, that's because it is. Director and Screenwriter David O. Russell (The Fighter) - himself a hard-nosed explosive personality - shoots and edits in a sometimes spastic style, attempting to demonstrate the plight of those with mental illness. Unfortunately, Linings ceases such efforts, becoming a straight-up love story and sacrificing any capital it's built between the first and second acts. Even the appearance of fellow patient Chris Tucker (The Fifth Element) eventually serves no purpose other than for comedic relief, as his constant escapes from the hospital only result in his eventual return. While it's unclear why the no-compromise Russell turned in such a typical Hollywood rom-com, it's very clear that both Cooper and Lawrence are choosing challenging roles that seem to improve their stock among both Hollywood's deal makers and moviegoers willing to shell out the dollars to see them. Cooper has come so far since his nerdy days as a reporter on Alias, but it's Lawrence who steals the show, painting a vivid picture of someone ruined by death and now devoid of any social graces. She plays the role beyond a merely angry woman, pulling you in with her good looks but bowing to the hot boiling glances she throws at Cooper. It's quite the tonal change from Hunger Games, and feels more like her portrayal in Winter's Bone than X-Men: First Class.
Still, there's too much wrong with Silver Linings Playbook to keep me from recommending it beyond a matinee. I've never had to live with mental illness, but would guess that the road to recovery is neither easy nor ever completely finished. Linings incorrectly suggests that all you need is a plan, a relationship, and some pills to get back on track. Not every mental patient gets to leave their care centers, and those that do struggle with recovery their entire lives. Linings suggests the opposite, that love can somehow correct biological illnesses years in the making by throwing two good-looking actors into the mix and giving them something to do. The Bi-Polar Cooper that struggles in Acts I & II is nearly gone by Act III, replaced with the good-looking actor Cooper walking confidently towards his date with destiny. Russell loses the audience by assuming we're OK with that, turning Act III into a glorified high-stakes gamble between Pat Sr and an elderly Dallas Cowboys fan. It's here that DeNiro's Goodfellas shtick inevitably rears its ugly head. He's a consummate professional at throwing down F-bombs with exacting detail, which is exactly what this R-rated film doesn't need. Moreover, the uneven pace of several scenes felt way too long and filled with unnecessary dialogue; in many ways, the film's 122-minute runtime could have been snipped, producing a tighter and more effective candidate for an Oscar run.
Silver Linings Playbook is certainly a 'Birds of a Feather' feature, suggesting that while misery loves company, misery also likes to reciprocate. That's OK if you're looking for a romantic comedy on mental illness, which to me seems like a poster boy for an oxymoron. And much like the Philadelphia Eagles team it parallels, Silver Linings Playbook will probably get to the playoffs but ultimately fail after tough tests from better competitors.
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