David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is an infectiously rousing crowd-pleaser about psychological damage and emotional healing. Does that sentiment seem oxymoronic? Yes, but only because there are very few filmmakers working today who understand how closely related each point in the vast gauntlet of human emotions are, and that creating an atmosphere of insight, spontaneity, and authenticity will always resonate strongly on levels dramatic, humorous, or tonally intertwined. We are unaccustomed to a film with such broad audience potential that explores the hearts and minds of its characters so deeply, or has such obvious understanding and affection for the community they inhabit. When a filmmaker achieves cinematic immersion this total, we are bound to love the experience, for we see ourselves and our own complex feelings on screen, feelings so raw and genuine that they blur the line between comedy and drama, reflecting instead our specific realities in all their infinite intricacies.
Russell and his team have done all this and more with Silver Linings Playbook, and if it is the hit I very much expect it to be, audiences will appreciate it for all the wonderful ways it provokes and entertains without talking down, contriving, or pulling punches. Every moment of anguish, triumph, heartbreak, or hilarity comes from a place of profound honesty and empathy, and yet it plays flawlessly to a crowd with the sort of electric communal energy I see only once in a great while.
Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a bipolar man just released to the custody of his parents – played by Jacki Weaver and Robert DiNiro – after the savage beating of his wife’s secret lover earned him an eight-month stint in a mental hospital. Pat’s very far from healed, but he has a plan to get in his mind and body in shape, looking for silver linings and hopefully earning his wife’s trust once more.
Cooper is fantastic, going to dark, intense, or downright ugly places with a gripping, utterly compelling range his prior work barely suggested. His trademark charm and down-to-earth sense of humor is on display as well, and watching him synthesize all these varying character traits and tics into one unified – if severely damaged – whole is a stirring experience.
Russell gives Cooper – and all his performers – leeway to go as big or as intimate as need be depending on the demands of the scene, shooting with a naturalistic, improvisational style that highlights the spontaneous and mundane. The technique underlines that while we may see obvious differences between Pat’s big, emotional outbursts and ordinary, routine chit-chat or football viewing with his family, these are merely sequential moments of human experience for the characters, moments that, be they positive or negative, cannot always be understood on an emotional level.
The instinctual aesthetics also allow Russell to develop community and setting at a laid-back, immersive pace. Engrossing us in the suburban Philadelphia world where Pat lives is obviously one of Russell’s key interests, and for good reason. He seems to understand the area intimately, and has filled Pat’s life with a variety of interesting characters. As Pat’s father, DiNiro is the lynchpin, an obsessive-compulsive gambler who loves the Eagles but really lives for his family, even if he struggles constantly to show it. This is unquestionably the best role DiNiro’s had in years, and one of his most nuanced and effective performances to date.
But as pleasantly engaging as Silver Linings Playbook appears in the early going, it’s not until Jennifer Lawrence walks on screen that the film kicks into high gear. Her performance is simply astounding, the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle cinematic magic that audiences shall discuss for years to come. She plays Tiffany, sister of a family friend who lives just down the road, and is just as raw and broken as Pat. Her husband has recently died, sending her into an emotional tailspin. When she and Pat first meet, sparks fly, not because of any immediate romantic connection, but because two forces of such intense damage and anger will inevitably ignite passions. They do not hit it off, but cannot escape each other’s orbit, for nothing is quite so healing as meeting someone who intimately understands one’s pain.
The power of Lawrence’s work cannot be overstated. She is a force of nature, a fascinatingly intense and magnetic presence that commands the screen whenever she appears. As fabulous as Lawrence has been in recent turns in Winter’s Bone or The Hunger Games, this is a bold new level for one of America’s most talented young actresses. Displaying ferocious degrees of emotional nuance and honesty that many excellent performers twice her age could never hope to achieve, the audience falls totally silent in her biggest moments, and is eagerly smitten as Tiffany gradually discovers her inner charm. I suspect Lawrence has this year’s Best Actress Oscar all wrapped up, and deservedly so; this is the best performance by a leading lady in 2012.
Yet as good as Lawrence and Cooper are on their own, each is at their best together, working flawlessly in one of the best acting duets in recent memory. Many of their scenes stand among the best cinema has had to offer all year, the duo’s climactic dance number – a contest Tiffany coerces a reluctant Pat into joining – radiating such wild levels of joy and emotional payoff that one can sense the sequence immediately taking its place alongside other all-time classic movie moments.
Silver Linings Playbook is a shaggy and imperfect film, but this seems intentional; it is, after all, about damaged and imperfect characters, and portrays difficult, unwieldy emotions. If Russell tightened the pacing or polished the unkempt character interactions, something about the movie would feel dishonest. And though this is an experience filled with laughter and tears, fueled by casual jokes and challenging introspection, it is first and foremost honest, at all times. No matter who we are or how damaged we feel, life has its ups and downs, some more severe than others, and Silver Linings Playbook is an exceptionally well-observed portrait of life at its most instable. There have been better films in 2012, but few as richly, emotionally rewarding as this one.