Thursday February 14, 2013

HARRISVILLE, N.H.

Silver Linings Playbook -- If anything, filmmaker David O. Russell may be best known for his ability to manage chaos onscreen. His movies like "Flirting with Disaster" (1996) and "The Fighter" (2010) mimic real life with such an authentic degree of disorder that watching them is like waiting for a car accident to happen.

Sitting comfortably in your plush movie theater seat, you can’t escape the nagging feeling that everything is about to go completely off the rails at any moment. And yet, seemingly at the last second, the director manages to tighten the reins enough to bring you safely back from a complete anxiety attack, if only for a moment. The result can be as thrilling as any roller coaster ride.

Perhaps this was never more true than in the director’s 2004 film "I [Heart] Huckabees." A movie that defies description (although "existential anarchist comedy" comes close), the film seemed built on a completely unstable foundation, with every character questioning his own existence and perceptions of the world to the point where they appear to teeter on the brink of their own sanity. The result was one of the most original, daring, and intelligent comedies to have ever somehow talked its way into a multiplex. Calling it Russell’s craziest movie would only be the highest compliment.

That movie now has serious competition for that particular title, however.


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Rather than merely mimicking craziness, "Silver Linings Playbook" actually takes that subject on itself with its story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former teacher attempting to assimilate back into society after a short stint in a mental facility. Centered around not one, but two seriously quirky characters whose sanity is questioned by everyone in their immediate vicinity, Russell manages to spin comedic gold from seemingly troubling subject matter.

However, merely affixing a label like "comedy" doesn’t do this film justice. Especially considering that many so-called "comedies" feel so dramatically contrived and formulaic that you expect a laugh track to appear at any moment just to signal the film’s punch lines. By contrast, Russell mines his characters’ emotional turmoil here for comedy, while refusing to deny the pain these awkward laughs arise from, and that can make those laughs stick in your throat a bit.

Rather than only seeking to entertain, Russell allows the characters to grow as the film plays, so that the movie gradually stretches out and deepens with each subsequent scene. Every character is given his moment to shine, whether it is John Ortiz as Ronnie confessing how his job pressures are emotionally suffocating him, or the chilly demeanor that serves Julia Stiles’ character of Veronica in creating those demands. Or it’s Pat’s parents -- Jackie Weaver as the frantic mother who desperately wants to act as if everything is fine when clearly it is not, and Robert DeNiro’s exasperated but supportive father whose desire to spend time with his son is laced with his own obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

In fact, director Russell deserves credit alone for drawing a memorable performance from DeNiro and reminding us that one of America’s finest actors didn’t always phone in a performance in movies like "Analyze That" (2002) and "Little Fockers" (2010). Here, DeNiro creates a sympathetic character whose struggles to manage a potentially unmanageable son are obviously both emotionally draining and sincerely heartfelt. As a result, the actor delivers his finest performance in years.

Perhaps that helped inspire the rest of the cast, for Bradley Cooper trades in his usual cocky onscreen demeanor for something riskier and less immediately appealing. His character’s occasional emotional outbursts frequently take on a credibly threatening atmosphere, and the level of mania visible in the actor’s eyes during these scenes is convincing.

Meanwhile Jennifer Lawrence brings her character Tiffany’s own issues to the table in a way that is neither patronizing nor flashy, but manages to both contrast and mesh with Pat’s in a convincing manner. Just watching the two bond over conversations of prescription medications and shared mental issues during an awkward dinner scene is undeniably charming. 

Granted, the issue of mental illness here is treated more as a story arc than necessarily a serious subject. However both lead actors bring such commitment to exposing their characters’ less attractive features, that one can’t helped but be emotionally swept up in the deep bond growing between them. By the end of the movie, you become so immersed in these characters’ world and the daily stresses that are placed upon them, that you can’t help but be won over by their desires to rise above their personal predicaments.

Rather than being an escapist comedy, "Silver Linings Playbook" is a complex hybrid of genres, a movie that proves as complicated as its characters. The humor here arises from the reality of the situations, and the authenticity of the characters and is injected with a serious dose of real life struggle that make the laughs that much more well earned.

Rated R.