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Rob Edelman: Looking for the Silver Lining

One new film that is sure to be high on this year’s Oscar buzz list is David O. Russell’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. While the film is predictable, it also is insightful and extremely entertaining. Its characters are flawed but likable, and are ever so human.

The central character is Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, a former high school teacher who is suffering from bipolar disorder. Pat is first seen as a patient in a psychiatric clinic, and he insists that he is well enough to return to the care of his parents. Once upon a time, Pat was married but, even though he discovered his wife cheating on him and is now separated from her, he is intent on finding her-- and reuniting with her. He also declares that he is determined to get himself together by erasing all the negativity from his life, and staying positive. Thus, he will have a shot at finding life’s silver lining. 

However, in films like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, the elixir for one’s ills surely is the possibility of a fresh new romance. So we meet Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence, a straight-talking young woman who is as equally unstable at Pat. Are she and Pat a match? Will they spar and then inevitably hook up, as characters do is so many romantic comedies?

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK works as well as it does because, as strange as this sounds, it effectively balances mental illness with comedy. But what really makes the film so enjoyable are the presences of its stars. Bradley Cooper acquits himself winningly as Pat, and Jennifer Lawrence proves that her acclaimed performance a couple years ago in WINTER’S BONE was no fluke. If she wins the right roles, Lawrence will be a major film star for years to come.

Then there is Robert De Niro, who plays Pat’s football-obsessed father. Four decades ago, De Niro was the exceptional young American actor. He was cutting edge and, for my money, he outranked the best of his peers-- a list that includes Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Nicholson, heavyweights all-- who justifiably earned their initial acclaim in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, these actors captivated audiences in a string of milestone films that collectively redefined the American cinema. But seeing Robert De Niro giving searing, emotionally intense performances in such films as MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, THE GODFATHER PART II, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, and RAGING BULL was extra-special, and nothing short of exhilarating. 

To this very day, I take great pleasure in re-watching these films, but they now are decades old and, for too many years, De Niro has been living off the good will he earned once upon a time-- and has been phoning in his performances. He has been at his best in the crime comedies ANALYZE THIS and ANALYZE THAT, released respectively in 1999 and 2002, in which he skillfully satirizes his roles in Martin Scorsese crime films. But I could not begin to list all the De Niro performances that merely are throwaways.

So all these years later, the question is: What happened to Robert De Niro? Will he ever again give a performance to match his Johnny Boy in MEAN STREETS, or Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER, or Jake LaMotta in RAGING BULL? While I doubt that we ever again will see De Niro playing such challenging roles, he is a delight in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. I predict that he will not only win a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, but he will walk off with the Oscar.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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