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Silver Linings Playbook: my take on the movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence

File this under 'better late than never'.  Just in case you still haven't seen it ... after all your friends told you how great it was? What are you waiting for? ... here's my long overdue 'take' on The Silver Linings Playbook. It's really less a review (there are a ton of good ones over at Rotten Tomatoes) and more a look at the casting. Having read the book, I knew that Matthew Quick's funny, heartwarming story about a couple of mentally fragile souls who help heal each other and find love, had the potential to be a really good movie.

It was writer/director David O. Russell's casting choices that had me befuddled. Right off the bat I bristled when I read Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) was cast as Tiffany, the grieving widow who chases after Pat.  Literally chases after him; following him every time he goes jogging, gradually building up a friendship of sorts. They strike a bargain; she'll help him communicate with his ex-wife despite a restraining order in place and in return, he'll be her partner in a dance competition. In the novel, Tiffany is older than the 30 year old Pat by a few years so I was disappointed that the director chose to cast a hot young name rather than a more seasoned actress. It wasn't only that I thought it would take an older actress to have the cojones to pull off the brassy, ballsy but deeply wounded widow. It was that I thought, 'Oh, wonderful! Here's a great part for an actress that's actually over 30! Hurrah!'  But what does Russell do? Cast a 22 year old instead. My frustration with what felt like typical male sexist attitudes aside, I did Jennifer Lawrence a disservice as an actress. Whatever her age, Lawrence has the maturity required to carry off a Tiffany who, under a brittle and aggressive mask is at once both desperately determined and vulnerable. Old beyond her years you might say. A wounded bird. Russell lets us know her actual age isn't the issue the first time they meet. They're partway into dinner at her sister and brother-in-law's house when Tiffany suddenly stands up, announces she's leaving and asks Pat to walk her home. Pat complains about her poor social skills but complies anyway and when they reach her parents home, where she has an apartment in the back,  Tiffany very bluntly invites him to have sex with her. When the astonished Pat asks her "How old are you?", Tiffany snaps back sarcastically with a withering sneer "Old enough to have a marriage end and not wind up in a mental hospital."  Ouch!  Old enough ...  yes, Jennifer Lawrence is. David O. Russell's sharply crafted script helps.

Likewise Bradley Cooper didn't seem right for the part of Pat, the just-released bi-polar mental patient either. Would I believe Cooper as a former fatty? And why would I want to? I like his current image just fine. Silly surface details aside, he's great in The Hangover  what with the big sexy beast stuff. I knew he could play a smartass but I was doubtful he had the range to pull off bi-polar. I needn't have worried. Turns out he has immense range, displaying his The Actor's Studio training with gritty realism. I've read that Cooper has had, what he calls his demons, in the past and went straight about ten years ago. That's a very dark place to come out from; the "silver lining" for Cooper being that his own life is a gold mine of emotional experiences and responses he can access should he choose to dig that deep, which he does here. It's tough stuff but he doesn't flinch. He rages like a wild man gone off the rails and his baby blues go dark and threatening. There's a scene where he lashes out at his parents, accidentally striking his mother; the the remorse instantaneous in his eyes and deflated body posture. I just thought he nailed the entire spectrum and his pretty dimples were scarcely in sight until the ending. Which I LOVED.

Part of Cooper's success as Pat has to do with changes Russell made to Pat's character. In Quick's novel Pat has been put away for almost four years; in the film it's 8 months. "Eight months is long enough" says his mother when she signs him out and brings him home without telling her husband.  Eight months is long enough. Russell has said he has a similarly challenged son but that the novel's character of Pat, so deeply troubled that he's been institutionalized for four years wasn't someone he could know and understand.  Being away for 8 months, that he could understand. That essential fact made it easier to buy it for me too.  Pat from the book, with his psychotic episodes blown up on screen might just be too frightening for the audience to fall in love with. The somewhat subdued cinematic Pat ('somewhat' being the key word) as played by Cooper is still hobbled by his psyche but very lovable indeed.  My complaints from the book - Pat calling the institution 'the bad place' and the separation from his wife as 'apart time' which made him sound moronic - were gone as well.

Another change which works really well is Pat, Sr., played masterfully by Robert De Niro. The novel's father is cold and unloving, angrily ignoring Pat for a good chunk of the book before he finally warms up. Russell and De Niro's character is much more complex - a loving family man with 'Anger Management' and OCD issues of his own. I don't think De Niro has been this good in ages. Cooper and De Niro have an off screen friendship; their natural chemistry definitely showed and I completely bought them in this difficult father/son dynamic. Russell has pointed out De Niro also has a son with similar issues and that he, Cooper and De Niro all come from Italian - American backgrounds which he says helped their mutual understanding.

Pat's mother is played with such, I don't quite know what to call it, other than charismatic maternal realism, by Jacki Weaver, that I found myself drawn to her face whenever she was onscreen. She's got a tentative crooked smile that grounded her in this role of a mother desperate for her son to succeed. I googled Weaver and discovered she's Australian film royalty. Weaver has been acting since the mid-1960's but rocketed to fame with an Oscar nominated role in Animal Kingdom just two years back in 2010. Earlier this year you might have seen her in Rules of Engagement but maybe not since it was a flop at theaters. Anyway, forget about that because she has another half dozen films already in the post production process. I'm really looking forward to seeing more of her over the next couple of years. Such a surprise, and that's saying nothing about her master of the accent. I'm no expert but I hadn't a clue she wasn't an American born housewife from Philly. I just listened to her doing an interview on Australian TV. Oh, she's definitely from the land down under.  What a seriously talented woman; I feel like such an idiot for not knowing about her sooner.

The writer/director of The Fighter, David O. Russell is clearly familiar with the working class families he writes about.  One of the most impactful changes he made to the book was in how the patriarch of this particular working class family makes a living. True to the times - 2008 -  Russell has Pat Sr. lose his job and take up bookmaking to earn a living. That gambling element really ups the stakes and adds a whole new shimmery layer to the ending's silver lining.

But it's Russell's personal experience with mental health issues (his own son is bipolar) and how families deal with them that really stands out. I can't think of a better fit in terms of adaptations. Indeed, it feels as though this was his movie to make.

Russell spoke of being inspired by his son in a Writer's Guild of America Interview. I think the quote I excerpted says quite a bit about Russell and the love he feels for him.

"I’d been waiting a long time for something with characters who have dealt with the many issues my son has dealt with, so he could feel a part of the world, and Matthew Quick’s book hit on it. So I was able to make it very personal." 
That fatherly feeling, wanting his son to feel a part of the world is what we all want for our kids. In the Silver Linings Playbook, Pat's parents feel it. They are desperate for him to succeed. To find happiness. It's what we all want and we root for him all the way.  As you can imagine a film (or a book) titled Silver Linings Playbook has a happy ending. Never overdone or saccharine here, is the idea that family, friendship, love are the things that connect us, and often, the things that save us. That's our silver lining. One of my favorite movies of the year.