From Wednesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman. 3 1/2 of 4 stars.
With 2010’s “The Fighter,” David O. Russell took a fact-based story of dysfunctional family dynamics and drug addiction, framed it in the conventions of an underdog sports drama and earned an Oscar nomination.
The writer-director makes another play for the gold statuette with “Silver Linings Playbook,” which draws up a character study of mental illness within the safe cinematic confines of a romantic comedy.
Films about people with mental illness are notoriously tricky given the fine line between no-holds-barred authenticity and offensive caricature. Under Russell’s direction, Christian Bale won an Academy Award playing a drug addict in “The Fighter,” but we already knew “The Dark Knight” star could act.
In Russell’s follow-up film, stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence exceed expectations — which were mighty lofty in Lawrence’s case, considering the 22-year-old has already earned an Oscar nomination — with their often uproarious and frequently heartbreaking portrayals of an emotionally unstable pair.
Based on Matthew Quick’s novel, the “Playbook” opens with former teacher Pat Solitano (Cooper) leaving a Baltimore mental hospital after eight months of court-supervised care, which was ordered after he nearly beat his wife’s lover to death. Pat’s caring, comfort food-cooking mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) brings him home to Philadelphia, where his obsessive-compulsive, sports-fanatic father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro in his best performance in years), who is trying to put aside enough money as a bookie to start a restaurant, quickly becomes convinced that his son’s return to Philly is the good luck charm the NFL Eagles need.
Now physically fit, equipped with therapeutic slogans about silver linings and positive attitudes but still refusing to take medication for his bipolar disorder, Pat thinks he is merely optimistic in believing he can win back his estranged wife. In reality, he’s delusional and not nearly as well as he insists. The first night in his parents’ home, he hurls a copy of “A Farewell to Arms” out a closed window because Hemingway’s ending was too “negative,” and by the next morning, he is violating the restraining order at the school where he and his wife once taught.
Over dinner with his loyal friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Ronnie’s chilly wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), Pat has an outrageous first encounter with Veronica’s younger sister Tiffany (Lawrence), a depressive widow who recently got fired from her job because she literally slept with everyone there. Pat and Tiffany soon are comparing prescription drug preferences, swapping blunt, wildly inappropriate observations and exchanging sharply witty barbs with the aplomb with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story.”
Like an adorable peewee football squad, Russell’s film careens cutely and chaotically from Pat’s scary middle-of-the-night meltdown, stunningly scored to Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be,” to their doe-eyed bonding over training for a dance competition, inspired by “Singin’ in the Rain” clips and coaching from Pat’s therapy buddy Danny (Chris Tucker, refreshingly low-key).
Although the story sometimes drags and the predictable rom-com ending feels too pat, “Silver Linings Playbook” scores some intriguing insights into what mental illnesses we consider socially acceptable — Pat Sr.’s football superstitions are the stuff of beer commercials, while his son’s violent kneejerk response to his wedding song would provoke most sensible people to call the cops — thanks to championship-caliber performances.