Review by Dave Crewe of CCpopculture
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.