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Silver Linings Playbook (The Weinstein Company, R)

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silverlinings 75It’s a kooky film about mental health and dance contests. It’s hugely predictable and formulaic. But it works.

 

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Have you seen the trailer for the new Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence film Silver Linings Playbook? Jesus, is it awful. But wait, there at the end: That heinous-looking mess was directed by David O. Russell? How can that be? Russell’s one of the very few American filmmakers who has at least a handful of feature films behind him, and he has yet to make a bad one. (His best so far is probably 1996’s Flirting with Disaster; his most recent is 2010’s The Fighter.) What’s more, he’s a notorious prick: Remember how George Clooney reportedly got in a fistfight with him on the set of Three Kings? Or that video that surfaced online of him chewing out Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees? The only person who seems willing to work with him more than once is Mark Wahlberg, and you kind of get the impression that he doesn’t really take shit from anyone. So, how did Russell come to adapt and direct a movie starring the girl from The Hunger Games and the dude from The Hangover about a dance contest? That sounds like about the worst thing ever.

But then, look behind the obvious side of the film’s marketing push: Silver Linings Playbook won the Audience Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (previous winners: The King’s Speech. Slumdog Millionaire. Precious. Amelie. The Princess Bride. You get the idea) as well as a couple of other film festivals, and it’s just coming off of a very successful local premiere at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival. And at this early stage in the awards season, Jennifer Lawrence is several professionals’ pick as the person most likely to win the Best Actress Oscar this year for her performance in this film. So there’s got to be something more than what there appears to be on the surface, right?

Well, there is and there isn’t. But let’s be clear: Silver Linings Playbook is a good film, and it’s going to be a big deal. Let your guard down and go see the damned thing; you won’t be sorry. The trick, though, is that on some levels it is what it looks like it is: a kooky film about mental health and dance contests. It’s hugely predictable and formulaic. But it works. It’s one of those formulaic films that reminds you why there are formulas in the first place. And the reason why it works is its excellent director and excellent cast.

I’ve never liked Bradley Cooper in anything before, but he’s great here as Pat, the angry newly released mental institution patient, where he was sent for committing a particularly violent act against a man with whom his wife was cheating on him. And despite his wife’s indiscretions, Pat’s big goal upon getting out of the Mental Marriot (if you’ll forgive my appropriating a Mary Karr phrase) is to win her back. This is going to be more difficult than it sounds, as she has a restraining order against him. This leads him to enlisting the help of Tiffany (Lawrence, who, unlike Cooper, I think I’ve liked in everything I’ve ever seen her in), who can pass a letter written by Pat to his ex-wife outside of the view of the law. Tiffany’s price for this service? Pat has to compete in a dance contest with her. Tiffany can’t dance particularly well, and Pat can’t dance at all. And they’re going up a bunch of actual professional dancers.

As solid as Cooper and Lawrence are, they’re held up by a whole crew of great supporting actors: Robert De Niro is the best he’s been in some time as Pat Sr., a man as crazy as Pat but in a different way (he owes a debt to Vincent Gallo’s parents in Buffalo 66). His mom is Jacki Weaver as Dolores; you might recall Weaver from a series of Scary Mom roles, especially in 2010’s Animal Kingdom, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Elsewhere we have Chris Tucker (yes, that Chris Tucker), Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, and some others turning in some fine work.

The real star, though, is Russell, who seems to be able to pull a great performance out of anybody (though one kind of wonders if he got into it with De Niro like he did with Clooney and Tomlin), and who is among the best at directing credible family chaos. He adapted the film’s screenplay from Matthew Quick’s source novel, and his script frankly isn’t that great, but he more than makes up for it with his direction. (There are some too-obvious meta-type references, especially one in the beginning where Pat reads A Farewell to Arms and says that the parts with the dancing are “boring” and that it needs a good ending. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lawrence knows all about Lord of the Flies, which seems like it had to have been some sort of intentional nod to her better-known role as Katniss Everdeen.)

The point is, regardless what you want to think about Silver Linings Playbook, it isn’t going to go away anytime soon. You’re better off seeing the movie now when your expectations are kind of low, because within a few weeks time it’s going to start drowning under its own hype. | Pete Timmermann

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