David O. Russell really loves his wounded and damaged families. His last movie was the great film The Fighter and he built a great story off of Micky Ward and his dysfunctional, yet loving family. The idea of the dysfunctional family carries more weight with him because he feels they share the most honesty and emotion with each other than the so called “perfect families” that put up the walls in order to bury the hurt or frustrations from each other thinking it will shield everyone from the negativity. The word ‘Excelsior’ is used often in Silver Linings Playbook (it means “ever upward” in Latin) and it’s about taking positives out of everything in life, no matter how crappy it may seem from the outset. As we follow Pat (Bradley Cooper) in his voyage back to civilization and confronting his issues, we are treated to an honest look into the battle against one’s mind, one’s past, and one’s idea of love. While brutal and unfiltered, this honesty is what makes the movie stand out and it owes all of it to the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who both step out and give their best performances to date.
The movie revolves around Pat’s reintroduction to society after an 8 month stint in the mental hospital. He always had mood swings and odd behavior but it came to a head when he discovered his wife’s affair with another man. One brutal beating later and he’s trying to figure things out, with the priority of them being a better person so he could win his wife back. His mother (Jacki Weaver) gets him out to help him get back with his family, specifically his father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who is a fanatical Philadelphia Eagles fan/bookie. He’s also the owner of several superstitions and OCD tactics to make sure his beloved birds win their games. Pat wants no part in this as he wants to learn everything about his estranged wife in order to be a better man for her and get back on her good graces. Despite the obvious flaws in this plan, he attacks it with a gusto feeling this will correct everything and the universe will align once he accomplishes his goal.
Upon introduction to the world, he encounters Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is suffering from her own loss of her spouse and her own resulting downward spiral. From the first time they meet and have dinner, they know they are the only two people in the room that can wade through the BS the world gives them. They also just happened to be both a bit nuts and damaged. They end up feeling each other out to figure out why they seem to be so in tuned to each other and if its a good thing or a bad thing. While they both seem wary of each other in that they might do more damage to their already fragile psyches, they end up finding out that helping the other person will lead them to the goal they desire. She needs a dance partner. He needs her to give a letter to his wife because of a restraining order. Of course, in Hollywood, that means we now have a dance competition!
Admittedly, this idea plays out more like a romantic comedy than anything but there’s more to this than the usual “damaged boy finds damaged girl and they end up fixing each other” plot line we see several times. However, Russell makes this an in depth look into a battle of someone trying to locate their happiness in the midst of their own crap and issues. It’s about a family’s struggle to deal with this event and the residual effects it has on each family member. With Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro as the mother who wants what is best for her struggling son and the father who feels helpless in his wanting to aid his youngest leading the way, they show the truth in the struggles that mental illness can cause. It is a journey that everyone takes as soon as they get into Pat’s gravitational pull, which is mainly a result of Bradley Cooper owning the screen.
Bradley Cooper has graduated into the top tier of actors. We shouldn’t think of him only as the ball of aggression from Wedding Crashers or The Hangover movies, but we need to take him seriously as he steps up his game. Building on his leading man role in Limitless, he channels his intensity in his eyes and delivery in a subtle, slow burn way that you feel and see his messages of despair when he’s about to break. Or when he’s so channeled into his furious bit for that extra inch of perfection that will hopefully get him closer to his wife. He shows that he is not all there but he has such an affinity to play it with such self awareness that you cannot help but feel for his struggle to gain control of his life and himself.
Of course matching him move for move in his dance is the ultra-talented Jennifer Lawrence. I am convinced that she could play any role she so desires. Her pick of movies shows a growth in her acting and never plays the same part twice. She can melt into any role and this one is no exception. She attacks this role, not unlike Amy Adams in The Fighter, with so much force that you don’t see Katniss Everdeen or Mystique, or even the survivalist Ree, her breakout role in Winter’s Bone. She is damaged with her own grieving but refuses to let that control her and takes on the embodiment of the word ‘Excelsior’ in trying to make the best out of the situation and being as gung-ho as possible. She still falls into her own traps but accepts them for what she is and continues to work for what she wants, even if it takes a white lie here or there. The chemistry between the both of them is off the charts and it is the driving force of this movie. When the both of them are on screen, you cannot avert your eyes from the magic that happens between them. These characters could been lazily played as crazy caricatures looking for love from one another but the depth that these two actors bring show there’s something more. They are seeking the cure for happiness that eludes them in life while still bleeding sadness with every look in their eyes. Not all actors could convey that will a simple stare or taking a small beat between sentences and they do it effortlessly. When awards season swings around, both should be nominated for awards, plain and simple. They are truly a force together on screen.
Speaking of nominations, let’s give Robert De Niro some credit with his best role in the last decade. De Niro does not have to cock his head forward and deliver a line reading twice in order to drive the point home like he has in the past several roles. He embraces this Pat Sr. in wanting to help is son in the worst possible way as he struggles to accept whatever his role was in Pat Jr.’s illness. The scene where he wakes up his son to talk about wanting to be there for him and his battle in figuring out how to be a better father is heartbreaking and cathartic. It’s the subtlety he brings that melts your heart without having to drive the point forcefully home. Jacki Weaver compliments him beautifully as the older parents who just want to shelter their son from the negativity and bring them back into the safe family bubble. They just don’t want to see their son get hurt and feel responsible for making sure he gets on the right path.
The supporting roles are great with Julia Stiles and John Ortiz playing the controlling sister and privately stressed brother-in-law of Tiffany who have their own issues and Chris Tucker makes an appearance outside a Brett Ratner film as a fellow patient of Pat’s who acts as a spiritual guide of positivity. All these characters come together under the guidance of David O. Russell’s direction, digging deeper into the character and having each others idiosyncrasies play off each other as everyone gets their time to shine and deliver great performances. While the plot, as I said earlier, can play off as a standard rom-com, Russell avoids this for the most part and makes it worth your while for a deeper understanding into the journey of each character to their ‘Silver Lining’. Yeah, it can get a bit predictable and cookie-cutter in terms of setting up the plot but you get so caught up with Pat and Tiffany’s collision with each other, it never distracts from the true story.
Overall, this is a great movie that everyone should see because the performances are outstanding, the idea is fantastic and it definitely will make you a fan of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence if you aren’t already. Be sure to get lost in the craziness but stay for the heart warming story of how a group of glitched personas get their lives on track and move “ever upward”.