For the first time since the Best Picture nominations were expanded, I’m within spitting distance of seeing all the nominees. The timing worked out well for me to catch almost all of them while they’re in theaters, with the only ones left out right now being Amour (I missed the one week run it was given in my area around Christmas), Les Miserables, and Life of Pi (both of which I’m not rushing to see). I’m thrilled to see such a variety of movies nominated, including the acting showcase that is Silver Linings Playbook.
Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat Jr., a clinically diagnosed bipolar man (Bradley Cooper) learning to cope with the illness that’s pretty much cratered his life. Shortly after the film begins we learn he’s been institutionalized as part of a plea bargain, his ex-wife has a restraining order against him, and his job’s long gone. All he really has is his bookie dad (Robert DeNiro) and loving mom(Jackie Weaver), and friends who arguably are as messed up as he is. At a very poorly thought out dinner party, he’s introduced to a young widow (Jennifer Lawrence) definitely as damaged as he, and their budding relationship makes up the rest of the movie.
The set up is almost too cute, and I cringed at descriptions of it as a new variation on the old As Good as it Gets formula. No matter how well-acted, would it really be interesting to see the Hollywood concept of mental illness, where True Love somehow cures or at least settles serious medical issues? Luckily, David O. Russell avoids the errors of that earlier movie, giving a more honest depiction of mental illness while still telling an entertaining love story. Aiding his efforts are some fantastic acting turns from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, and Jackie Weaver, all of whom more than earned their nominations. In a year where Daniel Day Lewis wasn’t embodying a legend, my money would be on Cooper to win the Oscar, he’s truly never been better as an actor. Weaver and Lawrence also shine creating characters who are much deeper than they appear, and Chris Tucker uses a small role to show he can be a very good actor when he doesn’t need to tap into manic energy to carry a whole movie.
I was also thrilled to see DeNiro actually approaching the level of acting he’s capable of. For too long he, like Pacino, seemed content to take supporting roles he can phone in. Here, whether it’s the character of Pat Sr., who is much more three-dimensional than anyone he’s played recently, or the strong cast around him forcing him to bring his “A” game, he shows flashes of the brilliant performer who’s frankly been supplanted by too many flat, phoned-in caricatures of earlier roles.
Overall, there’s a lot in this movie that shouldn’t have worked. Scenes like Cooper confronting a teacher at the school he used to work at, the dance competition subplot, the Philadelphia Eagles obsession shared by every character, including Pat Jr.’s therapist are saved time and again by sharp direction, a smart screenplay that never drifts into sitcom laziness, and exceptional acting across the board. Over and over, the cast proves surprising and moving, making even the most conventional set-ups feel fresh and lively. In particular the scene where Lawrence and DeNiro face off crackles with energy, and I was constantly surprised, watching the way Cooper plays Pat Jr’s emotional shifts without descending into a grotesque of a mentally ill man. The humanity each actor brings to their roles, and Russell’s deft direction, makes what could have been a conventional story something much more special.
My only frustration with the movie is how it’s been marketed as an indie, considering it’s filled to brimming with Oscar winners and nominees, and stars Bradley “The Hangover” Cooper and Jennifer “The Hunger Games” Lawrence. Regardless of the mental health of it’s lead characters, I seriously would have expected this to have opened wide, and trying to sell this as a “little movie that could” struck me as disingenuous. It’s as if the distributor felt marketing this as a Romantic Comedy might have brought in box office dollars, but would have led critic groups to ignore it’s awards potential out of that tendency of critics to consider box office success a disqualifier from awards consideration. The Seventies are lauded for that decade’s bold movies, many of which were also immediately popular and successful at the box office. Marketing like the rollout of this movie is, I think, a big part of why we aren’t seeing another decade like the Seventies. Pushing movies like this to mainstream audiences rather than hiding it for so long in arthouses and ceding screens to the likes of Parental Guidance would go a long way to showing how much audiences appreciate smart, well made movies when they actually have a chance to see them.
Still, that’s a knock on the distribution and marketing. The movie it self was excellent, and deserving of the success it’s seeing and the awards it’s collecting. Silver Linings Playbook is a genuinely warm, funny, and entertaining movie I highly recommend. The soundtrack, which features Alabama Shakes and Alt-J, is excellent as well.