Film review: De Niro shines as 'Silver Linings' updates grand comedic tradition

Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro in 'Silver Linings Playbook.'

Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook."

The Weinstein Company
As Tiffany Maxwell, Jennifer Lawrence channels screwball comedy heroines of old such as Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard as she pursues Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook."

The Weinstein Company As Tiffany Maxwell, Jennifer Lawrence channels screwball comedy heroines of old such as Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard as she pursues Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook."

'Silver Linings Playbook'

Rated R for profanity and brief sexual content.

"Silver Linings Playbook" asks the question: Can an "undiagnosed bipolar" history teacher find love with a "crazy slut with a dead husband"?

Answer: If a perplexed paleontologist can fall for a madcap heiress in "Bringing Up Baby," and a cynical newspaperman can succumb to the charms of a fraudulent victim of radium poisoning in "Nothing Sacred," why not?

The two movies mentioned above are classic examples of a trend in 1930s cinema that came to be identified as "screwball comedy." As distinguished from the standard romantic comedy, these films were notable for their strong female characters, their class-consciousness, their breakneck witty repartee and their embrace of situations so absurd and farcical they suggested the world had gone "screwball." (This was accurate, economically speaking: The genre was born during the Depression.)

"Screwball" is a comic slang term for "crazy," and perhaps this is what inspired writer-director David O. Russell to more or less literalize as well as update the screwball comedy genre in his new movie, "Silver Linings Playbook."

Adapted from a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, "Silver Linings Playbook" casts Bradley Cooper as the aforementioned bipolar history teacher, Pat Solitano, who has moved back into the Philadelphia home of his working-class parents after a court-ordered stint in a mental institution. This residency followed his violent attack on the fellow teacher who was having an affair with his wife (Brea Bee), whom Pat plans to woo back into his embrace, restraining order be damned.

Pat's parents are happy yet anxious about their son's return. Pat's fretful mother is played by the woefully underutilized Jacki Weaver, who is wonderful; meanwhile, his father, Pat Sr., is Robert De Niro, in what feels like the first role worthy of this actor's talent in many years. As the Sr. and Jr. designations suggest, the disturbed apple hasn't fallen far from the crazy tree: Pat Sr. is a superstitious obsessive-compulsive Eagles fan whose sports mania provides much of the film's humor and also motivates a key plot development.

Spouting anti-"negativity" self-help slogans but donning a suggestively demoralizing plastic garbage bag as a sort of smock, to help him sweat during his daily runs around the neighborhood, Pat Jr. is determined to make himself worthy of his wife. His quest repeatedly is interrupted, however, by the almost literal intrusions of Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence, never more grown-up, or hotter), a young widow with a reputation for being "loose" who insists Pat be her partner in a local dance contest. Tiffany sometimes bursts into the frame, and at such moments her appearance is as surprising to Pat as it is to us, as if his vision of the action around him were as limited as the moviegoer's. Tiffany's tireless, less-than-innocent pursuit of the reluctant and annoyed Pat is very much in the tradition of the screwball heroines of old, as played by such actresses as Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard.

Russell has examined the complicated workings of eccentric family units — both literal and makeshift — in all his films, which include "Flirting with Disaster," "I (Heart) Huckabees" and "Three Kings," to name a few. "Silver Linings Playbook" will seem especially familiar to fans of Russell's previous movie, "The Fighter," which typically is described as a sports drama but actually is as much a comedy of family dysfunction as the new film. Both "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings" are portraits of large, expressive, eccentric and troubled but loving working-class families in the Northeast, and, unlike too many recent comedies, both films earn their happy endings. Both movies, too, are shot in a deceptively casual manner, with a lot of shoulder-high handheld camerawork that gives the moviegoer the point of view of a participant in the action.

Also linking "Silver Linings Playbook" to the grand screwball tradition is its exceptional supporting cast, which includes Julia Stiles, John Ortiz and Chris Tucker — in a rare minor role, and in his first movie since "Rush Hour 3" in 2007 — as one of Pat's fellow mental patients. It's De Niro, however, who seems most likely to earn an Oscar nomination for his work here; Russell may earn writing and directing nominations, too, even if his film is less epic than such other recent openings as "Life of Pi" and "Lincoln."

"Silver Linings Playbook" opened Wednesday at the CinePlanet 16 and the Malco Ridgeway Four.

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