Friday, November 16, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

When I reviewed The Words in September, I said it was the best performance that we had seen to date from Bradley Cooper. But I added the caveat that we would have to wait until the release of Silver Linings Playbook – in which he stars with Jennifer Lawrence as a man on the other side of a mental health episode – to see if the claim sticks.

It doesn't. Having now seen Silver Linings, I can say to you without a doubt that we have only just begun to see Cooper's potential as a leading man.

In SLP, we meet Pat (Cooper), a history teacher who is moving back in with his parents after a stint in a psychiatric facility. Having found a newfound appreciation for the power of positivity (he shouts "Excelsior" in a sporadically charming, albeit intentionally ad naseum way) he sets out to reinvent himself as a physically fit, emotionally stable man all in the name of salvaging his marriage. Problem is, his mental lapse occurred when he discovered his wife having an affair, which resulted in him beating a naked man to near death – we learn of the event through a series of 1st-person POV flashes as he recounts the story to his therapist – and, subsequently, a restraining order being filed against him.

Pat is also tip-toeing on the verge of another episode, constantly fighting back triggers and outbursts and frequently spouting off inappropriate exposition. Sure, there's obstacles, but with a shout of "Excelsior" – Latin for "Ever Upward" – he shrugs them off, jogging relentlessly to shed the pounds his wife always wanted him to and reconnecting with both family and friends.

It's there that Lawrence enters the picture. Pat is invited to dinner by a friend, whose sister-in-law Tiffany also attends and is also dealing with emotional stress of her own. The two kindred spirits, after a few rocky false-starts, begin a friendship that finds the pair training for a dancing competition in exchange for Tiffany's help in winning back Patrick's wife.

The movie hinges on Cooper and his ability to portray a man at odds with himself. The film is a Dramedy, along the same storytelling tone of quirky ensemble-piece Little Miss Sunshine, and Cooper and Co. deftly and carefully swing from dark to light moments as we see a family longing for catharsis and guarded against disappointment.

Cooper, with a master's hand, portrays Pat's idiosyncrasies with such consistency, honesty, and sincerity that you can't help but question your preconceptions of what 2011's Sexiest Man Alive must be like in real life. His portrayal of mental illness is neither exploitative nor superficial, instead coming across as a shockingly believable human being.

But Silver Linings isn't a great performance, it's a great film. The supporting cast of Lawrence, Robert De Niro and a refreshingly understated Chris Tucker turn in spectacular work while the direction – David O. Russell of I Heart Huckabees – and storytelling pull you into a climax that has the tension of a thriller despite absurdly low stakes that revolve around a dance competition and the Philadelphia Eagles. It trades between moments of laugh-out-loud humor and cringe-inducing discomfort and instills in each character flaws, strengths and humanity.

Lawrence, for her part, returns to the indie-drama roots that put her on the map. It's her first appearance since the over-blown spectacle of The Hunger Games and a welcome reminder that there is so much more to the actress than the melodramatic and two-dimensional Katniss Everdeen. She won her accolades in Winter's Bone but in SLP she exudes an irresistible, enigmatic quality that is nearly intoxicating and completely fascinating to watch.

Silver Linings is one of those rare films that celebrates the failure and weakness inside each of us. By showing us a quiet tale of loss, depression and anxiety it manages to find humor and inspiration in the most unlikely and beautiful of places. A

Silver Linings Playbook opens nationwide on November 21.

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