Movie review: Silver Linings Playbook

05:00 AM, Dec 29, 2012

Bradley Cooper, center, plays Pat Solatano in a scene from the film, 'Silver Linings Playbook.' (JoJo Whilden/The Associated Press)/

Written By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannet Chief Film Critic

For a movie that seems at times to have no idea what it’s trying to do, Silver Linings Playbook is compulsively watchable.

There are a couple of reasons. One is that director David O. Russell, working from Matthew Quick’s novel, actually knows what he’s doing with his movie, about a mentally ill man trying to regain his foothold on life and win back his ex-wife at the same time. Russell is willing to let the wheels almost fall off from time to time to keep things interesting, confident that he can pull everything back together.

Another is the acting. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have been good in other films before, but not this good. Their performances carry the film, each giving depth to their characters that continually surprises. Cooper typically plays a handsome charmer. Here he shows real pain. Lawrence received an Oscar nomination for her work in Winter’s Bone, as a young, backwoods woman struggling to keep her family together, and fame for starring in The Hunger Games. Here she plays a wounded woman also trying to regain her balance in life.

When we meet Pat (Cooper), he is being released from a psychiatric hospital into the care of his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver). (Danny, a friend he met at the hospital played by Chris Tucker, goes along for the ride.) When they get home, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) is surprised. Don’t worry, Dolores says. But the look in Pat’s eyes, as if he is physically struggling to contain his mania (and, in fact, is), tells a different story.

Pat was committed to the hospital after he caught his wife in the shower with another man and beat him, almost to death. But now he’s lost weight, he’s on medication, and with an optimistic outlook, he’s going to win her back! Yes! Really! To everyone else, the restraining order she’s taken out against him makes this seem unlikely.

At dinner with friends, Pat meets Tiffany (Lawrence). She is dealing with her own issues, but, after an awkward encounter, agrees to pass a letter to his ex-wife in return for his entering a dance contest with her. So here we have elements of a mental-health drama, a romantic comedy and a competition. Throw in an obsessive love for the Philadelphia Eagles, and Pat Sr. obsessively betting on them, and you’ve got quite the offbeat stew.

And somehow it all comes together. Parts of the film are laugh-out-loud funny, others heartbreaking. The ache in Cooper’s eyes goes beyond merely pining for his wife and what she represents to him. He is desperate to be back in control of his life. Lawrence similarly commands her character’s emotions, to the extent that she has any control. They’re a volatile mix; in movies, that’s the best kind.

De Niro and Weaver are outstanding. Pat Sr. longs to connect with his son but doesn’t know how, while Dolores tries a little too hard to set things right. Poignancy swirls through the whole movie. Throwing together so many movie tropes and blending them is both a brilliant idea and a scary one, but one that Russell proves well capable of handling.