Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings PlaybookSILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook is a modern romantic comedy, which means that, in essence, its storyline would fit rather snugly alongside those of many offerings in the cinematic oeuvres of Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson. But allow me to blow your minds with this little nugget of information: While its narrative arc may seem familiar, even insultingly so, almost nothing in the movie happens the way you think it will. Somehow, using author Matthew Quick's 2008 novel as a blueprint, Russell has taken a tale involving two impossibly good-looking near-lovers, an emotionally distant family, and a big dance contest, and has ensured that you truly can't predict whether the seemingly de rigueur unions and reconciliations and victories will actually transpire. What's the deal with this Russell guy? Doesn't he know that's not the way things are done in Hollywood?

As Russell is also the writer/director of such intentionally messy, chaotic comedies as I Heart Huckabees, Flirting with Disaster, and Spanking the Monkey, the answer to that last question might be "Yes, but he doesn't care." What the filmmaker does appear to care about, as was apparent in Russell's The Fighter, is filling the screen with so much personality, and such specific personality, that the characters feel wholly capable of actions and choices that don't fit into the current mold of the Hollywood rom-com. Instead, in Silver Linings Playbook, Russell would seem to be taking his cue from boisterous screwball farces in the vein of 1938's You Can't Take It with You or, to use a more recent example, 1987's Moonstruck - movies in which characters teeter thisclose to complete meltdowns before common sense prevails in the last possible seconds. Russell's latest is a terrifically well-acted, beautifully written, sharply edited piece of work. Yet what makes it so much more than just an unexpectedly excellent entry in a currently stagnant genre is the movie's deeply moving grounding in real, albeit heightened, emotion. As with life, you can't anticipate exactly what will occur in Silver Linings Playbook, because the people on-screen don't have a clue either; just like us, they're merely following their instincts and making it up as they go along, and looking for happy endings that they only think, or hope, they deserve.

Without getting into spoiler territory, then, allow me to say that deep happiness does result from Russell's film, though whether that happiness comes from its ending or the thrill of its presentation and performances or both I'll leave for you to discover. In very basic outline, the movie concerns wayward son Pat Solatano (a fantastic, fired-up Bradley Cooper), a bipolar divorcé recently released from an eight-month stay in a mental institution and now forced to live with his caring but flummoxed parents (the wonderfully touching Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro, the latter of whom delivers perhaps his finest, subtlest screen work in decades). While hatching a plan to win back the love of his ex-wife, Pat forges a connection with a damaged widow named Tiffany (a fearless and hilarious Jennifer Lawrence), who eventually convinces the man to partner her in a dance contest. Throw in a pair of not-quite-helpful friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles), an obsequious older brother (Shea Whigham), a sports-gambling addiction, a lost pension, and a happily unhinged Chris Tucker, and you have Silver Linings Playbook, a sprawling, joyfully overstuffed comedy that serves up one potential cliché after another and winds up upending your expectations about every last one of them. Saying more would only dull the surprise of what proves to be a spectacularly surprising movie - go, enjoy, and then, as I did, recruit friends so you can go and enjoy it again.


Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django UnchainedDJANGO UNCHAINED

There are scenes in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained that are just as strong - just as scary and shocking and morbidly funny - as any scene from the auteur's previous features. Unfortunately, there are only about two or three of them, and by this point in Tarantino's career, I'd say we were definitely deserving of more. A brutally profane and bloody (and, at 165 minutes, punishingly long) revenge melodrama that finds Jamie Foxx's Django and Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz, in the mid-1800s, tracking down and executing slave owners for cash, the movie isn't without extraordinary elements. An early, Old West sequence in which Schultz guns down a small-town sheriff and proceeds, through well-reasoned verbiage, to get away with it ranks among Tarantino's finest, most unpredictable set pieces. And when Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a morally abhorrent house slave with a hidden agenda, you gets a taste of that spine-tingling "I really shouldn't be enjoying this as much as I am" satisfaction that accompanies the best of the writer/director's previous achievements. Yet the great moments, sadly, are few and far between; the majority of the film feels like it's just grinding its wheels in between ultra-violent encounters - the narrative, for Tarantino, is almost depressingly simplistic - and Foxx and Waltz, though effective, don't really give us anything they haven't already given us in other, better films. (Waltz's crackpot readings will probably always be things of beauty, but only on a few occasions do the words he's saying here match his gleefully anarchic deliveries of them.) There's some fun, though it's surface fun, in Leonardo DiCaprio's cheerful portrayal of a vicious Southern dandy, and the production design throughout is tops. Django Unchained, though, still emerges as a trifling little exploitation flick - or, as many will no doubt consider it, exploitation-flick homage - that's been grossly, and unnecessarily, inflated to epic proportions without boasting the gravity or cleverness that might excuse its length. About an hour into the picture, I started yawning with unbecoming regularity, and of all the surprises that have accompanied my screenings of Tarantino films over the years, that one was quite possibly the least welcome.


Billy Crystal, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, and Marisa Tomei in Parental GuidancePARENTAL GUIDANCE

Admitting that director Andy Fickman's Parental Guidance isn't as bad as its trailers suggested is pretty weak praise, considering that those trailers - the ones where Billy Crystal crosses his eyes and groans "Oo-o-o-oo!" after getting whacked in the nuts with a baseball bat - are among the year's, if not the decade's, least appealing. Yet while there's almost no actual wit in this grandparents-know-best generational comedy, and there are a few other slapstick assaults nearly as ghastly as that baseball-bat encounter, at least there's a healthy supply of likability courtesy of Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, and a trio of confident and professional child actors (Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf). Plus, although his mugging continues to grate, Crystal himself has some lovely moments and comes through with the closest thing he's given to a performance in a good decade-plus, almost erasing memories of his cloying Oscar-hosting duties from last spring. Crystal is hardly back to full "mah-velous"-ness, but Parental Guidance at least gave me hope that future appearances by the comedian are no longer things to actively dread.

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