WHAT joy it is when a packed cinema audience laughs as one. It is surely this that people mean when they talk about the communal pleasure of going to the pictures. It is an atmosphere, a cosiness, a celebration of fellow feeling that you can't find sitting on your tod at home with a DVD.
Silver Linings Playbook supplies such joy in abundance. And it really shouldn't. David O Russell's picture, you see, is about mental illness, breakdowns, meltdowns, fractured lives and all that other fearfully bleak stuff. Its attempt at making comedic light of all this ought to sink like a brick. Instead it glides along like a swan. A swan on antidepressants and in therapy maybe, but a swan nevertheless.
That the mix of heavy and light works so gracefully is down to those simple (but oh so hard to get right) matters of a shrewd director, a clever script and a perfect cast.
Russell's last film was The Fighter, another crowd-pleaser with a brain, a heart and a lot of courage besides. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale (who went on to win one of the film's two Oscars), The Fighter was a blue-collar drama featuring boxing, drug addiction and deeply scary women. Mixing comedy and tragedy, it was another picture that ought not to have worked, but it did, gloriously.
Adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper, on his best form since the first Hangover, as Pat, ex-teacher, ex-sane person. When we first meet him, he is being picked up from a Philadelphia hospital by his mother (played by Jacki Weaver, so ferocious in Animal Kingdom, so soft and mumsy here).
Pat has not been having a great time of it lately, and the reasons for this slowly make themselves clear. Enough to say for now that he is out of hospital and determined to take the Monty Python cure of always looking on the bright side of life. Every cloud has a silver whatsit, reckons Pat, and if you keep looking for it, turning every negative into a positive, everything will be OK.
While his mother quietly and nervously cheers him on, his father, Pat Snr, played by Robert De Niro, is baffled about what to do to help his ailing son.
Just as Cooper has his Hangover mojo back, so this is the best comedic turn by De Niro since 1988's Midnight Run.
Instead of being the calm presence his son needs, Pat Snr clearly has a few problems of his own when it comes to mental equilibrium, a galloping case of obsessive compulsive disorder, for a start.
Pat Jnr's main goal is to win back the wife he lost. During the course of trying to do this, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose sister knows Pat's wife. Tiffany, widowed and struggling in her own way, agrees to act as go-between if Pat will do her a favour and enter a local dance competition.
At this point I will admit to having some doubts, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest meets Strictly Come Dancing doubts. Yet, as in so many instances during Silver Linings Playbook, the strength of the characters, the story and Russell's sheer confidence, keep you on side. As much as you wonder where this tale is heading, it seems well worth taking the chance.
The same doubts surfaced over using mental illness and fragility as hooks for a comedy. Silver Linings Playbook, starring the deeply attractive Cooper and Lawrence, could so easily have been glossy, silly and, heaven forbid, wacky. How many problems could people who look like this have? How believable would they be?
While the film never entirely quells such reservations, Russell does a fine job of trying to be as honest as possible about what his characters are going through. For a comedy, Silver Linings Playbook goes to some uncomfortable places. Although we are laughing at the situations Tiffany, Pat and his parents get into and the conversations they have, it is clear that their lives are no joke to them.
Having done the serious part, Russell gets on with the comedy section of his tale. Although he will play some sombre notes a few times more, he lets his cast, and the audience, have some fun.
De Niro and Cooper play off each other as if they have been a double act all their lives, and there is a genuine spark between the sarky Pat – a man who confesses to having "no filter" – and snarling tough girl Tiffany. Boosting the mood further is a supporting cast of minor but perfectly formed characters.
After a few more brushes with believability, Russell, who also directed Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, returns to the straight and narrow task of delivering a film that rings true. A big-hearted delight – give it a whirl.
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