Having wacky characters in romcoms is often a recipe for disaster – but a committed cast and a mould-breaking director deliver the goods, finds Alistair Harkness.
Silver Linings Playbook (15)
Directed by: David O Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz
Rating: * * * *
The camera rarely stops moving in Silver Linings Playbook, David O Russell’s gloriously volatile new comedy about a bipolar teacher trying to re-enter the world after being incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. From the first moment we’re introduced to said protagonist, a charming headcase called Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), it ducks and dives, trying to keep pace with characters who are doing their best to keep pace with life – even as life throws all manner of objects in their path.
This is exactly where Russell likes to be as a filmmaker. The director of Three Kings and The Fighter thrives on subverting convention with chaos and here he turns his attention to the Hollywood rom-com, rehabilitating it after too many years of disrepair by delivering the flashpoint moments of a feelgood heart-tugger in an exuberant, rough-hewn package that pulsates with the combustible energy of its believably manic cast of characters. Russell – who has had his own well-publicised on-set meltdowns – is careful to treat this sensitively, though, not least by showing that the kind of desperation Pat is dealing with exists on a sliding scale.
Pat may have been committed for eight months for beating up his unfaithful wife’s lover, but when his mother (a magnificent turn from Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver) picks him up from hospital and returns him to the family home, it’s not long-before we learn that he’s not the only one who could be classified as mentally unstable.
After the financial crash wiped out his pension, his father (Robert De Niro, in good role shocker) has become a bookie with almost OCD-levels of superstition. Spending his days debating plays on various American football games, he seems to want to take care of his son, but his reluctance to talk to him about his condition clearly stems from a subconscious fear that violent incidents from his own past can perhaps no longer be chalked up to youthful boisterousness.
Then there’s Pat’s best-friend Ronnie (John Ortiz): he confesses to him – prior to a disastrous welcome home dinner party held reluctantly in Pat’s honour – that he’s quietly cracking up from the pressure of trying to maintain his chintzy suburban existence with his bullying wife Veronica (Julia Stiles – nicely frosty). Most of all, though, there’s Veronica’s sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a straight-talking, no-nonsense bundle of pain who has responded in inappropriately promiscuous ways to the recent death of her police officer husband and, like Pat, has retreated to the home of worried but floundering parents.
None of which sounds particularly amusing, of course, but Russell finds the laughs by confronting raw emotions head-on and quick-cutting scenes for maximum comedic effect. What’s really great about Silver Linings Playbook, though, is that while it embraces Pat’s titular philosophy of positive thinking and happy endings, it doesn’t arrogantly assume that we’ll buy into it just because the film is using the tropes of a romantic comedy.
When Tiffany tells Pat she feels an instant connection to him, for instance, it sends Pat reeling for the comforting delusion that his current attempt to mend himself will help him win back his estranged wife – and Russell uses this as the framework for the kind of will-they/won’t-they romance that Hollywood traditionally messes up by being too scared to use formula as licence to explore the characters.
Thus, when Tiffany agrees to help Pat win his wife back in return for his participation in an annual dance contest, anyone with even the faintest idea of how these films function should be able to predict the outcome, but as Tiffany’s reasons for helping him over the course of the film evolve, the full force of the emotional punch Russell ends up delivering becomes the film’s true surprise element.
A lot of the credit for this has to go to Lawrence and Cooper. Their attempts to out-crazy each other make their rapid-fire repartee feel like the back and forth of an old-fashioned screwball comedy duo, albeit stripped of the kind of artifice that would ring false in a modern film or, worse, turn proceedings into a box-ticking indie quirkfest. Cooper’s is perhaps the most revelatory performance of the two by virtue of it being his most challenging to date. Even so, The Hangover star admirably resists the temptation to showboat, playing Pat instead with a low-key, aching desire to be OK that resonates much more strongly. Lawrence, on the other hand, builds on the brilliant work she did in Winter’s Bone (and to a lesser extent on The Hunger Games). Capitalising on her innate ability to play wise-beyond-her years, she spits out the script’s smart-mouthed one-liners with genuine feeling but also reveals Tiffany’s vulnerability in heartbreaking and subtle ways. As they repeatedly bounce off then find each other, sometimes so quickly it’s hard to keep up, Russell’s camera is with them every step. You’ll want to be too.
DID YOU KNOW?
Anne Hathaway was originally cast in the role of Tiffany, but when The Dark Knight Rises took her out of the running, Jennifer Lawrence snagged the role from fellow contenders Kirsten Dunst and Rachel McAdams by auditioning for David O Russell via Skype.