Friday, January 25, 2013

'Silver Linings' offers honest exploration of the healing power of love

Writer/director David O. Russell's adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel "Silver Linings Playbook" is an uncommonly honest film exploring an unlikely pairing of subject matters: mental illness and love.

The film, as with the book, centers on Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is returning home to live with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) after an eight-month stint in a mental institution for an incident of extreme violence upon discovering his wife with another man.

Pat is bipolar with paranoid delusional episodes brought on by stress. He is obsessed with getting his wife back even though it is clearly a fool's errand. A restraining order is merely an obstacle to be overcome.

Into his life enters Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has her own bouts with depression, mood swings and anxiety. They begin a tentative friendship based on a pact: Tiffany will get Pat's wife a letter if Pat will join a dance competition with her. The film builds to that climatic dance competition. It will surprise no one that Pat and Tiffany are meant to be together, but what is surprising is how touchingly real these characters are.

The idea of a bipolar love story probably sounds bleak and "Silver Linings Playbook" does indeed have intense moments, but it also builds to something truly uplifting and romantic.

Most love stories have their potential lovers go through manufactured plot devices to keep them separated for 90 minutes. In contrast, Pat and Tiffany have real problems that they've been struggling with for years, for the most part, with no real support. In each other, they find understanding and someone who can make them better versions of themselves.

This is more than just a love story using bipolar disorder as a cheap gimmick to enliven a formulaic love story. "Silver Linings Playbook" is a serious character study of people dealing with mental issues. It doesn't just dismiss them as being crazy. We get to see the root of both Pat and Tiffany's issues.

In Pat's case his father is a ball of obsessive-compulsive superstitions and rituals associated with his favorite football team. Pat's father also has his own anger issues that got him banned from the local stadium. As for Tiffany, the way her husband died drove her to a promiscuous lifestyle that only fed into a depression she was already grappling with.

Mental illness is a subject matter that can easily become overwrought and maudlin. It is a tricky thing to capture because it requires the actor to go to dark places within themselves. It is easier to overplay the emotion instead of truly facing the subject.

Cooper and Lawrence, thankfully, do dig deep into these characters. Cooper, who to date has never been this good, creates a delicate and controlled performance. And control is the key word because Pat is a man constantly striving to stay in control and often failing even when his big heart is in the right place.

Cooper is required to have several explosive episodes, but we always empathize with Pat because Cooper and Russell make sure we understand the triggers behind these outbursts. Pat becomes overwhelmed by his emotions (ranging from deep-seated hurt to his burgeoning feelings of love) that he doesn't know how to process.

Lawrence's performance is every bit as good. Like Cooper her performance has an emotional rawness that feels authentic. There's also an unpredictability to her performance that fits a character who is attempting to understand her ever shifting emotions.

She makes Tiffany blunt, direct and fast talking. The way she confronts Pat's father about his theory that Tiffany spending time with Pat is creating bad "juju" for his team shows a woman that is strong and confident. It is a highlight of the film.

But Lawrence also reveals Tiffany's vulnerability especially in regards to her growing feelings towards Pat, which go unnoticed or reciprocated for much of the film.

Cooper and Lawrence have a chemistry that is volatile, which is fitting given their characters, but also sweet, in its own way, and believable. Moments like when Pat first asks Tiffany out and when they first hold hands are good examples of their unique chemistry.

The supporting performances throughout the film are equally strong. DeNiro in particular hasn't been this good in years. He gives a genuine performance instead of just a parody or watered down version of his previous work. A scene in which he admits his faults and limitations as a father is heartbreaking.

Chris Tucker, best known for the "Rush Hour" films, gives a surprisingly restrained performance as one of Pat's friends from the mental institution. In his other films, Tucker often seems to be trying too hard to be funny by relying on manic energy and shouting. Here he is relaxed and earns his laughs instead of forcing them.

"Silver Linings Playbook" is a rare kind of film. It tells a story that is, yes, romantic and often funny, but also portrays characters and difficult issues in a way that feels both real and true. This is a film to be treasured.

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