(A quick aside before my actual review begins. After I put up this review, I will have now seen and reviewed all of this year’s Best Picture nominees except for Amour which still doesn’t even have a release date on Netflix yet. The Michael Haneke directed foreign film may take a while to make it to our shores in DVD/Blu-Ray form. Anyways, that’s exciting so I can finally move back to my core list of films which I’m still in the process of remaking.)
Perhaps because it is the most easily commercialized and most consistently mass-produced genre of film this side of low-budget horror movies, it’s real easy to cast aside most romantic comedies out of hand. With cookie-cutter plots, emotionally vapid stars, and diabetes-inducing sweetness, rom-coms are an easy contender for one of the worst film genres. Which is sort of funny when I consider that two of my top three films of all time are romantic comedies (Annie Hall and Chasing Amy). So, leave it to David O. Russell (whose The Fighter I found almost uniformly over-rated barring the performances) to provide one of the best romantic comedies in years with the darkly comic and subversive Silver Linings Playbook.
Part of me is suspicious of how much I enjoy Silver Linings Playbook. Because despite the pitch black comedy trimmings, the film is still structured very much like a conventional romantic comedy. It’s only in the details where David O. Russell (and the author of the book the film is based on) finds ways to distinguish his tale. But, the details are so intimate and impressive that you almost forget the familiar story structure. And in a film where the lead performances are as electric as this one, it’s easy to forgive yourself for just wanting to bask in the glow of what will certainly be remembered as career-defining roles (not simply because Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for this film).
After spending eight months in a mental hospital for nearly beating a man to death who was sleeping with his wife, Pat Solitano (Wet Hot American Summer‘s Bradley Cooper) returns home to live with his parents in Philadelphia. Determined to win back his wife’s love (despite a restraining order), Pat tries to get in shape and turn his life around with the help of his dad (The Godfather: Part II‘s Robert De Niro) and mom. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, life itself is a struggle for Pat and his anger, and all it takes to set him off in to a rage some nights is disappointment in the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
One night, at a friend’s dinner, Pat meets Tiffany Maxwell (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence), a widow whose sister is close friends with Pat’s ex-wife. Tiffany has her own mental problems and after suffering from severe depression after the death of her husband, Tiffany began sleeping with nearly any person she could just to feel something. Tiffany promises to give Pat’s wife a letter if he’ll help her enter a dancing competition. And so, as these two become closer and learn to deal with their anger and depression and mood swings together, the question becomes whether Pat will get back with his ex-wife or if he’ll find love in the arms of the wounded Tiffany.
Jennifer Lawrence is 22 years old. She is a full year younger than I am. Yet, she has now been nominated for two Oscars and won one for this film (making her the second youngest Best Actress winner behind Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God). She’s starred in two of the biggest summer blockbusters of this decade (The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class). Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t simply set herself up to be one of the greatest actors of her generation. She is easily the best actress of her peer group. If I thought she was great in Winter’s Bone, I was not prepared for the tour-de-force performance she brought to bear in this movie.
Her performance as Tiffany in this film is the kind of role most actresses spend their entire career trying to land. The fact that she’s playing a character with such depth and emotional complexity at the age of 22 is just astounding beyond words. Jennifer Lawrence should only get more talented as she ages, and I expect her to rack up a Meryl Streep-esque career before it’s all said and done. Tiffany is a contradictory, explosive, deeply hurt woman who is barely hanging on by a thread, and with every second she spends on screen, Jennifer Lawrence makes you feel her pain, joy, and love. Congratulations Oscars. You actually got this one right.
And Bradley Cooper… I was almost at a loss for words when the film ended. I did not think Bradley Cooper was a good actor (except for his awesome work on Alias), let alone a great one before watching this movie. I literally could not have been more wrong. This may sound crazy, but Bradley Cooper was so much more interesting in this role than Daniel Day-Lewis was in Lincoln (though I still think Joaquin Phoenix should have won for The Master). Bradley Cooper committed so much to the craziness of Pat that it became frightening in some of the more intense scenes. Maybe this performance was a flash in the pan and a fluke, but I pray that it’s a sign of great things to come from Mr. Cooper.
It also doesn’t hurt that Robert De Niro gives what is arguably his finest performance since Goodfellas as Pat’s obsessive compulsive father. It becomes clear rather quickly that Pat Sr. has just as many anger problems as his son (with a serious OCD problem thrown in for good measure and a gambling addiction), and Silver Linings Playbook gives De Niro a chance to flex his acting muscles that he hasn’t been using after a decade of stale comedies. Chris Tucker is also surprisingly excellent as a fellow patient from Pat’s mental institution who is always escaping early with hare-brained excuses and plots.
Silver Linings Playbook‘s willingness to deal so frankly with mental illness and depression and anger is beyond refreshing. Though the film is a comedy (and my sister and I found ourselves laughing hysterically during the movie), the movie doesn’t make light of Pat’s bipolar disorder or Tiffany’s acting out. When it occurs, it is tragic and scary and real. And through this lens of actual human frailty, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds where most other rom-coms fail by presenting two realistic, flawed heroes to guide us through a tale of growth and redemption. That the film still manages to be hilarious is a testament to just how strong the writing is.
If you pushed me to try and find flaws in the movie (and the reason I’m giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” trust me it was close), I would have to say that perhaps the ending feels a tad bit rushed and that the visual direction of the film is a little stale. Otherwise, Silver Linings Playbook has even eclipsed the wonderful Life of Pi as my favorite of the Best Picture nominees of 2012. For fans of great acting, great storytelling, and great romance, Silver Linings Playbook has it all. And, I imagine it will be a couple years before another romantic comedy this great rolls around.
Final Score: A