Though hardly infallible, the Toronto Film Festival’s audience award has been a pretty consistent predictor of Oscar-think, particularly in the realm of small, off-beat crowd-pleasers. Most recently “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) and “The King’s Speech” (2010) were anointed by the people of Toronto en route to Best Picture coronation. This year’s winner — “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s feel-good follow-up to his 2010 critical hit, “The Fighter” — could be another.
The Weinstein Company came to Toronto planning to build on “The Master”’s Venice success but, so far as their offerings went, “Silver Lining Playbook” pretty much stole the show. The movie is pretty irresistible. Even an Oscar grouch like myself found it so, up to a point. Although more conventional than Russell’s more eccentric films, “I Heart Huckabees” and “Three Kings,” it’s certainly his most sustained effort in the 16 years since his similarly nervous neo-screwball comedy “Flirting with Disaster.” It also suggests that he’s found a particularly simpatico milieu. With its manic personalities, domestic squabbles, sports-crazed urban working-class setting, sand championship finale, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a more soulful, less overweening, lower-keyed version of “The Fighter,” with similar intimations of “Rocky” (or at least “Strictly Ballroom”) that’s even set in Rocky’s hometown of Philadelphia.
Not that this comedy of mental illness is lacks intensity. Released from the hospital where he landed after assaulting his wife’s lover, bi-polar high-school school teacher Pat Solatano (fiercely played by Bradley Cooper) moves in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, here the antithesis of the deadly mother she played in the Australian gangster flick Animal Kingdom), convinced he can get back his job and restart his marriage. This upbeat prognosis seems unlikely given his propensity for waking his parents, if not the neighborhood, in the middle of the night to rant about the unhappy ending Ernest Hemingway gave “A Farewell to Arms,” or the audio hallucinations of the song (“My Cherie Amour”) that triggered off his violence, not to mention the restraining order his wife has filed against him.
Cooper’s bluntly single-minded, surprisingly unmodulated performance as the unstable optimist meets its match when friends introduce him to the recently widowed, impressively diffident Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, hair piled high and likewise impressive in her first adult, as well as comic, role). However depressed, this self-described “crazy slut” is as volatile as Pat and even tougher: “What meds are you on?” she asks before inviting him back to her place. Naturally, Pat disapproves. The evolution of their relationship through various stages of need and antipathy is spiced with Pat’s battles with his father, an obsessive-compulsive bookie, much given to magical thinking. (De Niro is not only disciplined, focused, and connected but remarkably tolerable in the role.)
As suggested by its title, “Silver Lining Playbook” practices its own brand of magical thinking. The movie begins flirting with cuddliness once Tiffany blackmails Pat into serving as her partner in a dance competition and descends completely into rabble-rousing when Pat is called upon to risk everything in defensive of his humorous South Asian shrink (Anupam Kher), who is being race-baited at a Philadelphia Eagles game. Still, the two stars have accumulated so much sympathy on behalf of their wounded characters that it’s impossible not to root for them — and, by extension, the movie.
Image: Weinstein Co.