Cynics, proceed with caution.
"Silver Linings Playbook," the emerging Oscar hopeful starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as psychologically troubled souls sorting out their lives, is guaranteed to annoy people like you to its chipper end.
But for eternal optimists -- those who see silver linings even in the craziest of situations -- this heartwarming drama about messy families and messy underdogs belongs on your crowded "must-see" holiday movie list. True, it sticks to a fairly predictable romantic dramedy template, but David O. Russell's ambidextrous feature comes with prickly edges and insights aplenty as it explores a troubled man's (Cooper) return to his Philadelphia-area home after an eight-month stay in a mental institution.
Based on Matthew Quick's novel, "Playbook" fits comfortably in Russell's recent crowd-pleasing canon. Like his Oscar winner "The Fighter" from 2010, "Playbook" champions scrappy, fragile protagonists wrestling with burdensome demons and kooky families. The well-drawn characters -- Russell also wrote the script -- refreshingly avoid saying and doing the perfect things; in essence, they're unapologetically human.
That results in meaty roles for the cast, and the accomplished actors sink their teeth into the parts. Cooper in particular stands out, in part because he's so tremendous, but also because he fends off critics who dismiss him as an acting lightweight who coasts on his good looks. As Pat Solitano, a bipolar ex-teacher who's come undone due to his cheating wife, he renders a character you can't take your eyes off.
Accurately portraying a mentally ill man requires real care, and Cooper not only makes Pat vulnerable and likable, but also explores the emotional roller coaster he's on. "Playbook" walks a tightrope in how it portrays mental illness -- deriving humor out of its characters' actions while demonstrating just how deep-rooted their problems are.
By then, we're too hooked to care, a credit to Russell and the entire cast. Lawrence ("The Hunger Games") certainly helps. She's a commanding force as the fierce and angry Tiffany, a brittle young widow branded the town floozy; you can feel her anguish in every scene. She and Cooper have great chemistry, and their friendship never seems forced. Robert De Niro turns in one of his best performances of late as Pat's dad, a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with guilt about how it's played out in his son. And what a delight it is to see Jacki Weaver, an Oscar nominee for the riveting "Animal Kingdom," as Pat's well-meaning mom, Dolores. She never misses a beat.
Equally responsible for creating a lasting impression is the production design by Judy Becker. The Solitano home is the real deal, from the dark-wood cabinets and dining room table to the drab wallpaper.
All these elements distinguish "Silver Linings Playbook" as one of the most entertaining gifts from Hollywood so far this season, and one that warmly embraces the uniqueness of all of us.
'Silver Linings Playbook'
Rating: R (sexual content, nudity, language)
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence,
Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver
Director: David O. Russell
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
© 2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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