Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, Matthew Russell, Cheryl Williams, Patrick McDade, Brea Bee
Written by: David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick
Directed by: David O. Russell
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content/nudity
Running Time: 122
Date: 09/08/2012

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

First Downs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not too long ago, director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) seemed like one of our most fascinatingly volatile directors, capable of just about anything. (A viral internet video of Russell and Lily Tomlin screaming at each other only confirmed this). But then, after six years absence from the big screen, Russell made The Fighter, an intelligent, nuanced, subtle Hollywood drama, but a Hollywood drama nonetheless, without a trace of weirdness.

His new film, Silver Linings Playbook, suggests a comfortable melding of the two sides of the director's personality. Its first half is delightfully tense and anxious, with zooming camera and twitchy editing to suggest moods about to go dark and tempers about to explode. But its second half is soothingly ordinary, romantic, and triumphant.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a former teacher who has been checked into a mental institution for the better part of a year. His violent past is mostly mentioned in passing, but we know that his wife has a restraining order against him and that he is now living with his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro).

Pat begins a regimen of running, wearing a cut-out trash bag (to sweat, he says). Through an old buddy, Ronnie (John Ortiz), he meets the damaged Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who tried to recover from the death of her husband by sleeping around, and is now likewise living with her parents.

Subplots abound, but essentially it comes down to this: Tiffany promises to pass a letter to Pat's wife, if he'll help her enter a dance competition. At the same time, Pat's dad, a bookmaker, hopes to win enough money on a Philadelphia Eagles playoff game to start a legitimate business. The dance contest and the game become part of the same massive, double-or-nothing bet.

Chris Tucker co-stars as a fellow mental patient who keeps escaping, claiming that he's been legally released, and Julia Stiles plays Ronnie's shrewish wife. Anupam Kher plays Pat's therapist who comes into play during a live game. Shea Whigham plays Pat's brother, and Dash Mihok plays a cop who is more or less in charge of keeping an eye on Pat.

Just the sheer number of characters flitting around, each scrambling for plot space, gives an idea of just how frantic this movie can be. But Russell expertly uses all of it for maximum emotional -- and sometimes physical -- impact; you might be surprised to find yourself clenching during certain moments. And he even keeps it up for certain moments during the film's second half as well, such as in the climactic dance contest. This scene boasts some spectacular editing, showing spectators' reactions to underline just how the contest is going.

But though Pat does try hard, he makes a complete recovery too soon and too easily in this movie. And though Cooper is an entertaining and enjoyable actor in lightweight comedies or genre films (Limitless), he's not enough of a heavyweight (yet) to pull off the complicated emotional arc required by this role (or maybe no one could do it).

Actually, despite the speed and gut punch of some of this material, there's just something about the performances that doesn't quite feel complete. De Niro doesn't challenge himself, and Weaver -- who received an Oscar nomination for Animal Kingdom and lost to Melissa Leo in Russell's The Fighter -- likewise doesn't feel fully taken advantage of. It feels as if they're trapped inside the material, unable to get out.

Only -- amazingly -- Jennifer Lawrence does that. She finds cracks in the movie's frantic fabric and inserts moments of pain into them. It's astounding to think that she's practically a veteran at age 22, and has found snatches of maturity that many others much older than her can't grasp. She's very, very good.

Though it is disappointing how conventionally the movie winds up, it's also admirable how far Russell is willing to go with it before he gets there. It's quite a ride, and frankly, the sweet, nice, happy ending feels like a nice, deserved rest.
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