The 2012 London Film Festival Surprise Film, Silver Linings Playbook, was in many ways the ideal surprise film, at least from my perspective: not just because it was a total surprise in that I didn’t even know it existed, but the film itself has its own share of surprising turns. I didn’t even know the talent involved (David O Russell), nor the title (I had assumed it was “Excelsior” given that’s the first written word that appears frame centre and features prominently throughout – though perhaps it had too much association with South Park’s Al Gore), let alone where the story was going. It’s so rare I see any film with such a lack of prior knowledge, I should really think about doing it more often. How it got under my radar (it’s based on a book, trailers abound and it’s already screened at festivals in Toronto and Mumbai), I don’t know.
Okay, so the film then. We start with former teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper) who has just been released from a brief spell in a mental institution following the breakdown of his marriage. Moving back in with his mother (Jacki Weaver) and superstitious football fan father (Robert De Niro), he attempts to rebuild his life and reconnect with his estranged wife. However, a chance meeting with a friend’s recently-bereaved sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) leads to a proposition where she will help him contact his wife so long as he becomes his partner in a dance contest.
It all sounds terribly corny and improbable – both entirely predictable yet baffling in a way only Hollywood can manage – but the film seems intent on reflecting the bipolarity of its main character, similarly trying to keep the comic and dramatic balanced as it does the two key relationship strands (Pat and his father, and Pat and Tiffany), and it just about manages to keep it together. Russell is seemingly not so much trying to make the story believable in of itself, but the characters themselves. He understands the narrative turns allow for interesting character beats, thereby relying on his cast to ground it in reality.
It’s just as well then that in its two leads, Silver Linings Playbook manages to achieve this feat. Anyone familiar with Cooper only through his Hangover outings (though look out too for an in-jokey gag with a brief glimpse of a cinema showing The Midnight Meat Train) will be pleasantly surprised by his sensitive, sweet-natured and charming portrayal of a man trying his very best to take control of the issues that plague him. It’s clear that if people didn’t have as much faith in Cooper’s ability to deliver the goods when given the chance as Russell, this will soon prove to be quite the calling card. Lawrence meanwhile just continues to impress and impress, with perhaps her finest performance yet. Utterly compelling, convincing and equally adept at pulling off moments of lightness and darkness, she totally nails a tricky role.
There’s solid support too from Weaver, Julia Stiles, and a near-unrecognisable Chris Tucker (both on account of him reigning in his schtick and the inevitable weight-gain that happens when you don’t have another Rush Hour film to get off the sofa for). And when was the last time you could say De Niro was any good? Reunited with his Limitless co-star though, their affection for one another clearly shines through, and while he is perhaps saddled with some of the clunkier developments, he does well to challenge the young bucks for the emotional core of the film.
Thanks to these performances, Silver Linings Playbook manages to transcend its more preposterous qualities. Even the incredibly contrived climax and obvious signposting of the big themes at play throughout can’t quite spoil the overall good will. Strictly Moneyballroom it may be, but don’t let such frippery put you off.