Well, the Weinsteins have finally decided to let us have David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook — on Christmas Day. And a nicer present would be hard to wish for. It’s far and away the best offering of the ones I’ve seen that open between now and Dec. 25, and definitely gets my vote for best Christmas Day viewing. (The only unknown quantity of real note is Django Unchained, which didn’t get the awards season push for local critics to see it.) Granted, it’s R-rated — mostly for language — and a lot of the thematic material is definitely adult, but if that’s not a concern, it’s your best bet for a movie that will entertain you, make you laugh and maybe even make you tear-up. That’s a pretty good Christmas Day parlay when you come to think of it. Writer-director David O. Russell has said that it’s meant to be like a 1930s screwball romantic comedy. I won’t dispute that, but it’s definitely a modern take on that kind of film, and not some slavish attempt to copy something from an earlier age. Put simply, it’s very much the sort of screwball romantic comedy you might expect from the guy who made I Heart Huckabees (2004).
The film recounts the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), a fellow who has been doing a stint in a mental institution for attacking his wife (Brea Bee) and her paramour in the shower. He’s getting out when the film opens — though without the institution’s blessing and with a lot of restrictions, including a restraining order where his wife, her boyfriend and the school where he once worked are concerned. But Pat is upbeat — mostly because in his mind he can mend his ways, become what his wife wants and rebuild their life together. His mother (Jacki Weaver) believes in him. His father (Robert DeNiro) — who has anger issues of his own — is less sanguine about the whole thing. Much the feelings from his father can be said of just about everyone — at least until he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with her own set of issues. They sort of hit it off because they’re both at least a little crazy and decidedly prone to say and do exactly the wrong thing. Besides — in a kind of “meet cute” bonding for our age — they can natter on about their various experiences with psychiatric medications. She wants him, but he’s still in pursuit of his ex-wife. However, Tiffany’s older sister (Julia Stiles) is in contact with said ex-wife, and Tiffany uses her position to make a deal with Pat to surreptitiously deliver a letter from him — if he’ll do something for her.
Without going into further details — a lot of the fun lies in finding them out for yourself — that is essentially the plot, or at least the bare bones of it. There’s a lot more going on than that in terms of characterization and in complications — especially when two bets become involved in the plot. This may not sound all that different from other films of its type — and in some ways it isn’t, but in other ways, it very much is. Tiffany may not really be a lot more than a variation on, most obviously, Carole Lombard’s dizzy rich girl in My Man Godfrey (1936), but the character has more depth — and more pain — than you see in that earlier form. The line between dizzy and mentally unbalanced is perhaps a thin one — or perhaps this film recognizes that those dizzy society girls were more disturbed than the fun of the concept allowed. That’s not to say that Silver Linings Playbook isn’t fun, or that it doesn’t do what you want a movie of this nature to do. It just does it in a different way. You really do need to see for yourself. Trust me.
As noted, the film is part of the world of David O. Russell — much more so than his last film, The Fighter (2010), was — but it’s more viewer friendly than I Heart Huckabees. It’s just as quirky, but it’s a quirky crowd-pleaser. The whole cast is splendid — everyone is better than they needed to be — and Russell’s direction is creative and assured. Fans of that earlier Bradley Cooper film, The Midnight Meat Train (2008), should watch the scenery in the scene when Cooper chases Lawrence from the diner. (Apparently, Russell is an admirer of that film, too — and I like him even more for that.) Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity,
Starts on Christmas Day at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14 and Fine Arts Theatre