Director David O. Russell dissected an abysmally dysfunctional family in “The Fighter,” the Mark Wahlberg boxing saga.
He studies another combustible family struggling to connect in “Silver Linings Playbook,” an emotionally powerful comedy/drama that’s a portrait of a man consumed by heartbreak and damaged by mental illness.
Bradley Cooper, in a powerhouse performance, plays Pat. At the beginning of the film, we linger on his pained face. He’s obviously trying to grasp control, just barely keeping it all together. This desperation never leaves.
We soon find out that Pat has lost everything — his wife, job and house.
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And at the moment, he’s about to be released from a mental institution after eight months, much to the disapproval of his doctors who try to talk Pat’s mom, Delores (Jacki Weaver), into leaving Pat there. She’ll have none of it.
But when they get home, Pat’s dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is surprised to see him, unaware of his release and plans for him to move in with them. Immediately, we get the sense of disconnect between them all.
But Pat settles into the attic. His mom keeps after him to go to therapy, but Pat is convinced he’s healed, and even refuses to take his medication.
Upon visiting an old friend, he is invited to dinner. He reluctantly accepts, but when he attends, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hunger Games”), and he’s slightly intrigued. Her policeman husband recently died so she’s gone through therapy herself, and is obviously struggling with her own dark issues. For the first time, Pat sees someone he has something in common with — they even swap medication horror stories.
But she advances him too soon, sending him into a confused frenzy at home that erupts into turmoil.
Later on, other “chance” meetings make Pat more intrigued with Tiffany (she keeps “bumping” into him on his daily jogs). But he is adamantly trying to keep his feelings for her in check. See, he has a very detailed plan to win back his wife, even though everyone tells him she has moved on, and even though she has a restraining order against him.
It gets even more complicated when Pat asks Tiffany to get a letter he has written to his wife. But Tiffany refuses unless Pat participates in a dance competition with her as her partner.
From there, things understandably get messier and emotional. It doesn’t help that Pat Sr. is trying to guilt Pat into spending time with him watching football games, under the guise that he wants to spend time with his son. Instead, Pat Sr. is wildly superstitious and believes Pat is a good-luck charm, and bets a lot of money on each game.
It all comes boiling to a head as Pat learns his wife will attend the dance competition. He decides to train hard so she will see how much better he is now. And in control — which, of course, he isn’t.
“Silver Linings” lacks the scope and tumultuous personalities of “The Fighter,” even though there is plenty of conflict, both outwardly and inwardly.
As Tiffany, Lawrence gives a ragingly internal, firecracker of a performance. She injects hurt and defiance into Tiffany while also making her vulnerable. Especially as we see that she’s falling for Pat.
De Niro and Weaver also lend strong support in finely detailed roles. Delores is a helpless mother who only wants her son to get better. Pat Sr. grapples with guilt over not being a better father, but he’s selfish also.
But Cooper is the show here. He’s completely captivating, and it’s a shame we’ve never seen this side of him before, so fearless to push himself to the limit. His awards recognition so far this season is warranted.
Don’t think that “Silver Linings” is a downer, though. It’s funny, engaging and entertaining, and has an ending that is sweetly romantic.
Ultimately, it’s a study of control, and how we might think we have it, but rarely ever do.