The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 25, 2013

Benji Tunnell: Tucker, Lawrence stand out in sketchy 'Playbook'

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Movies dealing with mental illness are a tricky thing to pull of effectively.

Handled wrong, they come off as tasteless, insensitive or maudlin (“Radio,” “Me, Myself & Irene”). Handled the right way, and they become Oscar bait (“Forrest Gump,” “Slingblade,” “A Beautiful Mind”). “Silver Linings Playbook” attempts to walk this fine line without tripping over itself.

In “Playbook,” Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a former teacher just released from a court-ordered stint at a mental institution after walking in on his wife and her lover and nearly beating the man to death. While most might think such behavior is warranted, Pat is diagnosed as bipolar, and must undergo eight months of treatment.

After his release, he moves back in with his mom, Delores (Jacki Weaver), and dad, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), as he attempts to get his life back together and reconcile with his wife — who has a pesky restraining order standing in the way of a happy reunion.

In the meantime, Pat meets Tiffany, a widower who became self-destructive after her husband was killed and who is only just now getting her life in order. Pat wants Tiffany to deliver a letter to his ex, and she agrees to do so on the condition that he be her dance partner for a competition.

It’s a pretty far stretch to get these two characters together, and it doesn’t entirely work. Throw in a subplot with Pat Sr. running a bookmaking scheme and his superstitious delusions that his son is the key to his good luck and the Philadelphia Eagles winning, and it seems like the filmmakers are trying a little too hard to force whimsy into the story while trying to railroad the two leads into a predestined relationship.

Director David O. Russell tries his best to move from the fringes of independent film (“Spanking the Monkey,” “Flirting with Disaster”), first with his Oscar-nominated “The Fighter” and now with “Playbook.” But his attempts to merge his early film mindset with something more mainstream hurt the flow of the film. His screenplay adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel builds Pat as a mostly unlikeable character, and his redemption seems as forced as the idea of the dance competition.

The script is incomplete. The motivation for so many actions seems underdeveloped, and there are points in the plot where characters have knowledge that they couldn’t possibly have had. Every step is predictable, and as it steamrolls to its conclusion, there is little doubt as to what choices will be made, what the overall outcome will be and how we’re supposed to feel about it.

The performances span the board for the movie. DeNiro shows enthusiasm and energy not seen in a while, seemingly ecstatic to get away from all forms of “Fockers,” but he comes across as cartoonish and unbelievable in both his demeanor and his decisions.

Cooper tries hard to break into full leading-man role, but his portrayal of bipolar holds no real validity. Not only does he not make his character likable, but he makes him mostly unbelievable.

There are two standouts in the film, for two very different reasons:

• The first caught me completely off guard. I’m about to use words I never thought I would: I actually liked Chris Tucker. Tucker has been known for variations of his annoying, grating, extraordinarily obnoxious persona for so long that I didn’t think he could convince me that he could actually act if compelled to.

This is a far cry from his “Rush Hour”/”Money Talks”/”Friday” days. Though his character Danny is wholly unnecessary to the plot or the film, Tucker, in his limited role, is surprising in his restraint. Let’s hope he continues on this path, if only for our collective sanity.

• The standout of the film is Jennifer Lawrence. As the young widow, she realistically portrays heartache and instability, coping with the loss of her husband and the guilt that she feels by embracing self-destructive behavior.

Though she has detoured into the more profitable big-budget world, a role like this shows that she could very well be the strongest actor of her generation. Lawrence injects heart and humor into the character, and because of this, she redeems an otherwise predictable and pointless film.