Bradley Cooper stars as Patrick, a former high school history teacher who is being released from eight months in a mental hospital as the film opens. Patrick has undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and when he caught his wife with another man, he snapped and nearly beat that man to death. Patrick is being released into the protective custody of his parents who live in Philadelphia.
Patrick’s father (the great Robert De Niro) clearly has some undiagnosed issues of his own and now runs a sports book after losing his pension in the crash of 2008. Patrick’s mother is played by the fine Australian actress Jacki Weaver. And, though they are loving and supportive parents, we can see the dynamic that’s caused Patrick’s psychological issues. Patrick is working hard to get better, so he can hopefully win back his estranged wife.
A very good thing walks into his life in the form of Tiffany (Katniss Everdeen herself, Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany is also struggling with issues of depression following the death of her police officer husband. Pat and Tiffany clearly have things in common, but it’s not until he agrees to help her enter a local dance competition that things get interesting.
It’s essentially a romantic comedy, so you have a pretty good idea where the Patrick/Tiffany relationship is probably going to go. But, Patrick is trying pretty desperately to win back his wife, so the ending isn’t as cut and dried as these things normally are.
Like Russell’s last film, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds largely on the director’s knack for writing rich characters and then getting fine work from his cast. Keep in mind that The Fighter won both supporting acting Oscars two years ago. Russell’s script also manages to wring truthful and honest laughs out of sometimes touchy subject matter like mental illness, death, and family dysfunction.
This is simply the best work Bradley Cooper has ever done on film. At times, I find him to be a bit smarmy (I’d love to seem him in another villain role like he did in Wedding Crashers.), but here that smarm is completely gone. This is a big, open-hearted performance as a guy who knows what his flaws are and desperately wants to fix them.
She’s only 22, but Jennifer Lawrence is one of the best young actresses in the business. She’s already been Oscar nominated once, and she’s likely the main reason The Hunger Games was such a massively successful movie. Here, she’s playing a complex and damaged woman who is likely older than Lawrence actually is. Cooper is 15 years her senior, and yet there never seems to be a big gap in their age. Lawrence is really great here, totally exposed emotionally. What a career she’s going to have!
And, I just have to say how great it is for Robert De Niro to get such a great role at this stage in his career. His early work, like gaining 70 pounds for Raging Bull, is the stuff of legends. But, as most actors get older, their good roles tend to dry up. Damn you, Hollywood Ageism! It’s sad to think that a generation of moviegoers only knows him from those awful Fockers movies. De Niro is effortlessly spectacular here. It’s hard to believe he’s nearly 70.
Also noteworthy in the cast is Chris Tucker, who took time out from his busy schedule of making a Rush Hour movie every six or seven years to appear here. He plays a smaller role as one of Pat’s friends from the mental hospital, and he’s totally low key and charming, nothing like the obnoxious braying he does with Jackie Chan. I’d love to see more of Chris Tucker, the character actor. He’s really good in this.
Silver Linings Playbook does get a little bit flabby in the middle; there are some scenes that could have been tightened up a little. But, it comes on very strong in the third act. Yes, it’s a romantic comedy, but it’s far richer and more complex than your average Kate Hudson movie.
It gives me hope for the genre.