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REVIEW: Silver Linings Playbook
REVIEW: Silver Linings Playbook

Mentally ill characters have always attracted filmmakers because their erratic behaviour - those giddy highs that are invariably overtaken by crushing lows - makes for great comedy and wrenching drama.

PJ Hogan, in Mental, made mental illness so movie-ish and so damned cute that Rebecca Gibney and Toni Collette come across not as seriously disturbed but more as victims of the small-minded, hypocritical status quo - free spirits crushed and screwed up by the system.

David O. Russell moves into similar territory with Silver Linings Playbook, in which an older working-class couple (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) struggle to deal with their bipolar son Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former Baltimore high school teacher who was committed after he viciously attacked his wife's illicit lover.

Thankfully, Russell never allows this multiple Oscar nominee to slip into the cuteness which afflicts movies about mental illness, with the Hangover hunk making a sensationally smooth transition from comedy into drama playing the truly troubled Pat (although there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in Silver Linings Playbook).

Indeed, the best thing about Russell's movie is that he never goes soft on Pat and makes him a royal pain in the arse, a self- deluding obsessive-compulsive with few social skills and no filter who believes all he needs to do to get his wife Nikki back is have a positive attitude to life (the meaning of the title).

Pat is such a blinkered boob that when the chance of a new relationship and new life comes his way in the shape of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a blue-collar bombshell with a few problems of her own, he keeps her at arm's length so he doesn't mess up his chance of getting back together with his estranged wife.

For the first 90 minutes Russell keeps the relationship between his two screw-loose leads as grounded as you would expect from a director whose last film was The Fighter, with their every encounter resembling a bruising Ali-Frazier fight.

Meanwhile at home the fists actually do fly with Pat's long-suffering parents struggling to keep their own lives together - De Niro's Pat Sr has lost his job and is running a sports betting operation out of his lounge room - at the same time as he is trying to keep their son from breaking a violence restraining order and contacting Nikki.

Russell is terrific at whipping up domestic chaos and relationship disorder, using a hyperactive shooting and editing style to take us into Pat's fractured psyche and the disruption he causes to the lives of his parents and anyone within earshot of his mania.

Russell also allows the sense of things being out of control to permeate the storytelling, a roll-with-the-punches approach that gives this film tremendous energy without the compulsion to stir up the forced craziness that Hogan used in Mental (and which drove so many viewers nuts).

However, about two thirds of the way through, Russell's blast of indie energy and invention morphs into the most contrived of Hollywood fairytales, with Pat Sr risking his life's savings on a football game because he is given a tip from Tiffany, which Pat believes is some kind of omen.

It makes for a sweet and funny conclusion but whatever illusions we had about this being a serious study of mental illness, second chances in life and the power of familial love dissolves into the most unbelievable kind of Hollywood fantasy, in which serious mental problems are whisked away with a sprinkle of fairy dust. It is a pity because there's so much to like about Silver Linings Playbook.

There are the performances of Cooper and the amazing Lawrence, who reveals herself as the best actress of her generation in showing the sadness beneath the sass.

And then there is De Niro, who gives his best performance in memory as a father who realises that whatever problems his son has, have been passed on in the blood.

Jacki Weaver is fine as Pat's mother but she is called upon to do little more than serve food and smile in the background.

At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, Weaver's best supporting actress Oscar nomination is the softest in memory.

Indeed, the whole movie is punching way above its weight (eight Oscar nominations is silly), which may prove Pat's point: if you have a positive attitude good things will come.