Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

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Review by Dave Crewe of CCpopculture

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Robert De Niro is an undeniable icon of American cinema, an actor who casts a long shadow. He’s renowned as a versatile, idiosyncratic method actor who has given vivid life to some of the most memorable characters of the last half-century. It is nonetheless hard to deny that De Niro’s shadow has shrunk over the last decade or so, his reputation squandered on broad comedies and thin dramas. Silver Linings Playbook was, if the conventional wisdom is to be believed, a return to form for the man, earning him his first Oscar nomination in over a decade and critical acclaim.

Before talking about Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic-comedy-slash-drama that dabbles in mental illness and football, I want to talk about a common thread that runs its way through all of De Niro’s best roles (and many of his others, besides). While his performances certainly demonstrate versatility, De Niro’s main strength lies in his ability to capture the contradictions at the intersection of masculinity and femininity.

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In De Niro’s work, masculinity is generally realised in the form of a tendency for raw violence. He’s been a jumpy hoodlum (Mean Streets), a mafia figure (Goodfellas, The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time in America and countless others), a thuggish boxer (Raging Bull), a malevolent rapist (Cape Fear), a deranged fan (The King of Comedy) and even Satan himself (Angel Heart). The pinnacle of De Niro’s career – his role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver – stands as the best example of the way he can personify a sense of unstable raggedness. Whatever the role, when Robert De Niro delivers a threat, you believe it, even in roles where the violence is only implied.

But the Hollywood version of masculinity brooks no weakness. What distinguishes De Niro’s depiction of violence is how, at his best, he contrasts such brutal impulses with unabashed, undisguised emotion. Jimmy Conway might coldly order the deaths of mafia underlings, but he still collapses into tears when an associate is murdered. Vito Corleone demonstrates a cold, pragmatic confidence when inflicting violence, but cares passionately for his young family. Neil McCauley knows to run when the “heat” is on, but can’t disguise his feelings for Eady. Travis Bickle’s instability is ultimately consummated in a maelstrom of masculine impulses, gunning down pimps and mobsters, but only after his infantile expressions of devotion towards Betsy are rejected. To pluck an overripe cliché, De Niro is a livewire: raw, unconcealed. Dangerous.

This same conflict is apparent even amongst his weaker roles. In Meet the Parents, he’s asked to embody a family man with a deep vein of violence throbbing under the surface. In countless roles he essentially spoofs his own reputation: in Analyze This, Stardust and even Rocky and Bullwinkle, the “joke” is that whatever tough guy De Niro is playing actually has human feelings (one wonders if the directors of these films have paid much attention to his early work). These roles are disappointing not because they avoid the dichotomy between masculinity and femininity that De Niro inhabits so successfully, but because they render it a weak joke.

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Silver Linings Playbook is different, playing into De Niro’s strengths while refusing to reduce him to an object of mockery. His performance in this film is not on the level of Taxi Driver or Jackie Brown; but it’s powerful nonetheless and warrants the Oscar nomination he received. In Silver Linings Playbook, he plays Pat Solitano Sr, married to Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and father of Pat (Bradley Cooper) who has just returned home from a mental institution. Pat Sr is obsessively devoted to the Philadelphia Eagles and has recently begun a bookmaking operation. He gambles incessantly and superstitiously, believing his son to be a “good luck charm” guaranteeing the success of his beloved Eagles.

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The film is more interested in the younger Pat than his father: De Niro is certainly a “supporting” actor here. But he takes the small role and fleshes it out into something greater. Pat Sr could easily have been as much of a joke as Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents – a kooky old guy with an odd set of superstitions. Instead the character feels like a real person whose obsession with football (and the Eagles in particular) has become a liferaft from his problems – recent unemployment and a mentally ill son chief among them. That predilection for violence evident in De Niro’s earlier roles is apparent here alongside his clear love for his family. Pat Sr is not shy to react to his son with his fists; his first reaction to conflict is anger.

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Pat (Bradley Cooper) alludes to his father’s roughness – pub brawls and such – when talking to his therapist, and it’s clear that this propensity for violence has rubbed off on Pat. His stay in the mental institution was provoked by his brutal beating of a man he discovered sleeping with his wife. Throughout the film, Pat’s erratic behaviour – impelled by his often unmedicated bipolar disorder – has an edge of violence to it. Pat’s demeanour softens over time, thanks to both medication and finding a partner: Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, whose astounding, vibrant performance earned her an Oscar), a young widow as damaged as him.

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There’s much to recommend Silver Linings Playbook. Its cinematography is defined by roving shots, quick cuts and an erratic editing rhythm that serves to place the viewer in Pat’s headspace. The acting is excellent across the board; De Niro and Lawrence are the standouts, but Cooper and Weaver are also impressive. The film has its weaknesses, however, and most of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the screenplay. It’s not a terrible script by any means; it moves swiftly, engages its audience and has some clever moments (for example, the suggestion that Pat Sr’s violence has influenced his son is never made explicit, but the subtext is clear).
However the film has an uncomfortable tendency to show and tell how its characters feel; the actors and framing capture the emotions right before they blurt out exactly how they’re feeling. This is not indefensible, particularly when it comes to Pat and Tiffany, neither of whom seems to have a filter between their brain and mouth, but it becomes egregious when the practice spreads to other characters. Similarly the exposition, particularly early on, can be clumsy and distracting. The conclusion feels a little too “Hollywood,” with everything coming together perfectly. Finally, Chris Tucker’s character feels out of place – I loathe the term, but it feels like a classic example of a “token black guy.” Tucker does good work in his brief scenes, but I couldn’t help but think that a number of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

Having not read the novel the film is based on, it’s not clear whether these faults are that of director David O. Russell (who adapted the novel) or the novel’s writer, Matthew Quick. But while they might distract from the quality the film, none of these problems are ruinous. Silver Linings Playbook remains a showcase for an impressive cast’s impressive talents, and is recommended to anyone; especially if you want proof that Robert De Niro’s still got it.

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43 thoughts on “Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

  1. Excellent review Dave. I particularly liked your rundown of DeNiro’s roles throughout the years and I couldn’t agree more on your take of this film. It was great to see DeNiro back on form.

    • Thanks! He really seems to get the character; it’s the kind of movie I would have liked to see expand out into a television series, both to avoid the speedy plotting holes the movie falls into and to get a better sense of these people.

  2. Good review Dave. The whole movie was great, but De Niro was definitely one of the highlights, showing us that once again, the man can in fact act when he wants to.

    • Thanks Dan; I think his average acting over the majority of his films in his last decade is probably a combination of apathy and average roles, so it was great to see him given the opportunity to do something meaningful with a character and take up that opportunity!

  3. I thought this was one of his better films in his later career. The tenderness as a father when he tries to communicate his failings as a father, and his neurotic, OCD was conveyed perfectly.

    • He does a great job of capturing the commingled rage (that obviously negatively affects his parenting ability) and the deep love he feels for his family.

    • I think it’s basically a well-executed romantic comedy. The writing feints at caring about mental illness and family but fundamentally it’s about these two people, so if you’re not a fan of rom-coms (down to the last minute run through the streets to prove yourself cliché) it’s an easy film to dislike. I mostly enjoyed the erratic cinematography and the acting!

      • What, in this movie, was funny? I was waiting for any kind of laugh, but there was nothing. This guy had a few breakdowns, and they weren’t treated like a joke. Also, Jennifer Lawrence was cuhhhhrazy. Nothing was resolved about their destructive relationship by the end of the movie. She probably kills him.

        • I think the direct no-nonsense way Cooper and Lawrence’s characters interact with the people around them is plenty amusing, in an awkward-cringe-comedy sorta way. Not exactly rolling-in-the-aisles laughter, though. But when I said romantic comedy I was more thinking “rom-com” – you know, boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy likes girl, misunderstanding, boy wins back girl, the standard formula. SLP followed that to a tee but with more seriousness and thought behind it than a Katherine Heigl film.

          I’d agree that their relationship is destructive and probably unhealthy in a bunch of ways. I don’t think that’s a bad thing! The film is already a bit too happily-ever-after.

    • Thanks – I wasn’t sure if everyone would be doing something similar with these reviews, so I feel a little lucky that I didn’t have a dozen people saying the same thing before me! 🙂

  4. Very nice write-up! I actually think that De Niro was one of the strong points in an otherwise pretty good movie. I know the vast majority absolutely adore this film and a appreciate many things about it. But I felt Russell overdoes some things and it could be said the ending undermines its attempt at really being something uniquely different. But De Niro was strong and he really brought it.

    • Yeah, the last 20 minutes or so of this film is just mired in cliché after cliché, and it’s pretty disappointing. Very happy ending, Cooper runs through the streets to win back Lawrence etc etc. I think with a script that ends better it could have been genuinely great rather than just pretty good. Still, I imagine that’s the fault of the novel it’s been adapted from rather than the screenwriter?

  5. Very nicely done mate. A much better film than I imagined going in, although you’re certainly correct about the ending. De Niro is good here but not fantastic, although ‘good’ is better than he’s been in a lot of stuff over the past decade or so!

    • Yeah, he’s not mindblowing here (and he certainly didn’t deserve to win the Oscar, though I have no problem with the nomination) but he does good work with a small role that could have been so much more forgettable. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  6. Awesome review! And I love the first part as well, interesting to read for a De Niro newbie like me. I didn’t even think of De Niro when I started watching because there was Lawrence and Cooper, but he simply stood out.

    • Thanks – I’d definitely recommend checking out some of De Niro’s earlier work, some of the best examples of modern American cinema have that guy front-and-centre 🙂

      • I’ll second that 100%. DeNiro was everywhere when American cinema was at its finest throughout the 70’s and 80’s he worked with quality director after director. Quite simply, I don’t think any other actor has achieved what he has.

  7. Reblogged this on ccpopculture and commented:
    Had the opportunity to partake in Tyson and Mark’s De Niro Blogathon, where writers watch a De Niro film they’ve never seen before and share their thoughts. Here’s my review of Silver Linings Playbook (along with some more general thoughts on De Niro’s filmography)

    • De Niro’s role and performance really do elevate the film, as you suggest in your review – without Pat’s parents, it’d be a much weaker film. Thanks for the kind words!

  8. Excellent review! I actually finally just watched this for the first time. I did enjoy it but not as much as I was expecting after all the hype. I was actually a little disappointed. :-/ And all the acting was very good but didn’t seem QUITE worthy of all the Oscar noms (Lawrence’s win seemed due to her being the “it” girl of the moment). (Am I going to get in trouble now?! Lol). It was fun, just not GREAT. And I hate football!!!! 😉

    • It’s definitely a good movie rather than a great one, and I get the impression that a lot of the hype came from people being surprised that what is fundamentally a romantic comedy with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence turned out to be such a smart film. Agreed on the football thing, I know nothing about American football so all the details of that subplot flew right over my head!

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