TORONTO -- After a six-year gap between releases, David O. Russell returned to form in 2010 with “The Fighter,” a boxing-cum-addiction dramedy that became a commercial and awards force that season.
Just two years later, Russell makes a new bid to be a fall player with relationship dramedy “Silver Linings Playbook.” After its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International film Festival, it’s looking to be quite a compelling one. And with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, it features performances that will leave many people walking away impressed. Among those people, we suspect, will be Oscar voters.
The movie -- which originated years before “The Fighter” when the late Sydney Pollack gave the director the eponymous novel -- offers that mixture of humor and heartbreak that “Fighter” blended so well. Except this time the filmmaker is dealing with the far trickier subject of mental illness.
“Silver Linings” begins as the emotionally troubled Pat (Cooper) is being released from an eight-month stay in a mental hospital. We soon learn he was sent there after going on a rampage (he had discovered his now-estranged wife with another man) and that he has a bipolar disorder that has plagued him since childhood. When Pat isn’t going off physically, he’s aggressively speaking his mind, which often means saying wildly inappropriate things to the people closest to him.
His parents (Jackie Weaver and De Niro) have tried seemingly everything and are the end of their ropes. (De Niro’s character, the story suggests, has some quirks of his own, and watching the two men spar is one of the film’s many joys.)
For the first 45 minutes or so, Pat can be so annoyingly ingenuous you might want to throw a shoe at him. (It’s a testament to Cooper’s skill that you don’t.)
But the movie soon becomes far more than a tale of one man’s struggle to fit in, as Lawrence’s Tiffany, the sister-in-law of Pat’s good buddy, enters the picture. A similar bundle of problems, Tiffany has been dealing with, among other things, the recent and sudden death of her husband, and though she puts on a somewhat better facade than Pat, underneath she’s a dark mess of insecurities and antisocial impulses -- elements to which Pat can obviously relate.
But that might make it sound like some kind of simple lost-souls-find-each-other narrative, and “Silver-Linings” is hardly that neat. Russell has Tiffany and Pat dance around each other -- literally, in one subplot -- while the actors find all sorts of nuances and rhythms that would elude lesser talents. (Lawrence walks the strength-vulnerability line better than any young actor working today, and Cooper has a remarkable ability to dial the charisma up or down as needed.)
Russell also gives them plenty of comic material to work with, especially in one all-out football-themed family confrontation (the movie is shot in Philly and has a strong Eagles undertone) that will remind longtime Russell fans of the director’s classic family melee in “Flirting with Disaster.”
Throughout the festival’s Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday night, the comedy was garnering big laughs, while the poignant moments had audiences going quiet and intense. Of the half-dozen public screenings we’ve attended so far at this festival, “Silver Linings” played the strongest, and an after-party was filled with genuine enthusiasm that went far beyond the usual smoke-blowing.
The film is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle from a marketing standpoint (the Weinstein Co. will release it just before Thanksgiving) since it skirts the line between arthouse drama and mainstream comedy, but if it catches on, there’s no telling how far it can go.
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