A famous film critic once revealed one of the “dirty little secrets” of professional critics. They see so many films that they often overrate a film that’s different or fresh just because it’s outside the norm and a change of pace from the usual. Silver Linings Playbook has gotten a lot of great press, and it’s admittedly different, fresh, and refreshing. It may not be quite the great film that some are declaring, but it’s a showcase for good-to-great acting and it tackles a risky topic with great success.
David O. Russell, director of The Fighter, has a knack with actors and a way of burrowing into the heart of a story and finding a way to tell it both entertainingly and with integrity. It’s been called a romantic comedy, but it’s grittier and far more serious in topic than a typical rom-com. It’s the story of two young people struggling with life, mental illness and relationships—and much more as well.
Russell favors an intimate approach to his material, keeping the camera close and personal. This is a story about people and their struggles. Much as The Fighter was about family and only secondarily about boxing and drugs, so Silver Linings Playbook is about love, dreams, struggles and family. While films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest keep us aware of the The Issue of Mental Illness while telling their story, Silver Linings Playbook stays focused on the individuals and their battles, failures and successes.
This kind of up-close-and-intimate approach works best when your actors are up to the task, and this is one of the best ensembles of the year. There has been nothing in my experience with Bradley Cooper that could have suggested that he was this capable as an actor. The role is an actor’s showcase, of course. But he hits the highs and lows with precision and grace. There are a few moments where the comic actor unfortunately gains ascendance over the straight actor, but those moments are few and work as comic relief. But Cooper is a revelation and breaks through to a whole new level with his work here.
Jennifer Lawrence’s work would be a revelation if one only knows her from The Hunger Games. Her earlier promise in Winter’s Bone (Oscar nomination for the then-17-year-old for Best Actress) is fulfilled her with a performance that is more adult, realized and well-rounded than anyone has the right to expect from such a young actress. Cooper is a few years too old for the part; Lawrence, a few years too young. But you’d never know it from her work here. She can sustain several different emotions at once, and has the uncanny ability to place vulnerability anywhere from right on the surface to several layers back behind the eyes. It’s easy to play “crazy” but not so easy to do crazy and real and particular. Her character isn’t crazy; she’s a character with mental and social behavioral issues. That involves mood swings and inappropriate actions, but they are never allowed to be expressed separately from her character. Lawrence is simply too young to be this good, which is good news for everyone who loves great film acting.
Rounding out the great acting demonstration are Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s character’s parents. DeNiro, finally, is back as an actor. He has a required “let’s go for the Oscar nomination with this one” kind of scene with Cooper, but it works, and happily, it’s all of a piece with his fine work throughout. He’s feisty, funny, sad, pathetic, and genuine. I thought we’d lost him to parodies of his own persona and his own oeuvre. But he’s back.
Jacki Weaver, who has that face we’ve seen before but can’t place, is DeNiro’s equal, and the character that supplies whatever there is of stability in the film. This is her second Oscar nominated performance in the supporting actress category (the other for 2010’s Animal Kingdom), and she is marvelous, more than holding her own in such esteemed company. She’s the mom who loves and comforts and tries to make everything OK, but avoids every cliché in being that character. You believe she’s DeNiro’s wife and Cooper’s mother, and she’s a joy to watch.
Russell is a wonderful voice in current American cinema. Family clearly means a great deal to him, and he avoids both bathos and cynicism, even with people behaving badly. Plus he’s amazing with actors. Think of Silver Linings Playbook as a mash-up of an unusual rom-com with a study of the struggles of young adults with mental issues, and you’ll come close to understanding what this is. But films have to be experienced to be understood, and there isn’t anything else out there quite like this right now.