DAVID O. RUSSELL’S LATEST DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY DRAMEDY BEATS THE ODDS
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rated: R Grade: A
Family is a tricky proposition in the world of David O. Russell. Whether the ones we’re born into (“Spanking the Monkey” or “The Fighter”), those that raise us (“Flirting With Disaster”) or the bonds we form along the way (“Three Kings”), dysfunction lurks and threatens to stunt his hapless protagonists in their human pursuits. But what fun he grants to us, the audience watching the comic figures as they struggle in the face of inevitability. Imagine, if you can, Russell’s “Matrix” trilogy, featuring a war between man and his neurotic clan, far more cruel and domineering than any machine. There would be no savior to reboot the system because you can’t remake a (perfect) family.
His Neo-esque heroes try though, and in “Silver Linings Playbook,” we get Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a former teacher, newly released from a mental institution after a violent psychotic incident, heading back into the hornet’s nest that he calls home, the South Philly domicile of his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Pat Sr., a superstitious bookie who bets on all things Philadelphia, especially the Eagles, knows a thing or two about misplaced and/or misdirected anger; he’s been banned from the stadium after several noted altercations. And Dolores, well, she’s the loving enabler who holds the family together as best she can.
All Pat wants is to prove to his adulterous wife (his discovery of her infidelity triggers his violent break) that he’s rehabilitated and ready to be a loving husband again, despite the fact that everyone, including his best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Ronnie’s domineering wife Veronica (Julia Stiles playing hilariously against type), seeks to convince him otherwise, both for his sake and hers. Ronnie and Veronica match him up with Veronica’s sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a fellow psychologically-challenged inhabitant of Russell’s screwball Matrix.
It doesn’t take much to see that Pat and Tiffany are stand-ins for Neo and Trinity. Instead of portentous pronouncements, a predilection for black leather, and revolutionary slo-mo kung fu fighting, Russell offers crackling exchanges between Cooper and Lawrence that attack their emotional cores but reveal strengths that everyone near and dear to them assumed were lacking.
Not surprisingly though, Russell doesn’t stop there. Remember, family is the main event and so, there’s the dynamic between Pats, junior and senior, that must be resolved. Pat Sr. is not some Morpheus-like guide for his son; he is the Architect of his son’s dysfunction, which means that the interplay of Cooper and De Niro must be considered. And it has been quite some time since De Niro has had meaty material like this to challenge him. He’s not one for elevating average material, but he certainly tops off a great piece of work.
But the stars in this “Playbook” are Cooper and Lawrence. Likeable and easy on the eye, both of them have coasted a bit up to this point. Cooper, thanks to his work in more mainstream fare (“The A-Team,” the “Hangover” franchise), has never caused much sense of dramatic alarm. Lawrence earned critical notice for “Winter’s Bone” before crossing over, so she’s less shocking here.
Russell must have sensed they were ready and boy was he spot-on with that assessment. As Pat and Tiffany team up for a ballroom dance competition that will determine the fates of several characters and narrative threads, the outcome is never really in doubt, which places more pressure on Cooper and Lawrence to make us believe that the stakes are high, that there’s something at risk. And they, with Russell in firm command of the “Playbook,” do the unthinkable. They make us see that the red pill is the only option to make dysfunction functional.