Anyone whose life has not gone quite according to plan can identify with this one. As well as anyone whose relationships with family are sometimes tense and uneven. Can two people who are angry about their past relationships find happiness with each other? Well, we all want to believe in second chances, don’t we?
Bradley Cooper, usually playing the handsome leading man, this time tackles the role of Pat Solitano, the disappointing guy with a screw loose somewhere. He’s just been released from a mental institution. We find out later that he’s been there for eight months as part of a plea-bargain agreement, because he went berserk when he saw his wife in the shower with another man, and beat the guy up. Well, that part is not exactly commendable, but it is understandable.
But Pat Solitano has other problems. He seems to have some virulent combination of O.C.D., and he’s A.D.D., and he’s marginally bipolar. He doesn’t like to take his medications because they make him “foggy,” but without them, he doesn’t think anything about awakening his parents at 3 a.m. to express his disappointment in an Ernest Hemingway book he just read. He jogs compulsively, wearing a trash bag. He’s back at his parents’ house because he’s no longer married, but he still wears his wedding ring and still says he’s going to make up with Nikki, though everyone around him tries to tell him it’s not happening. He tries to hang onto ephemeral things, like the word “excelsior,” to get him thinking positively, or always looking for the silver linings (hence the title). But we get the feeling that he’s so “out there” he may not return to the land of normalcy.
Here’s where the true romantics can take heart. Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman down the street who also lives with her parents. Tiffany was married to a cop who died, and apparently she reacted to that badly. We find out later that she felt really guilty about denying him sex in the months prior to his death, and tried to compensate for it by being promiscuous at work, which created all kinds of other problems. She’s obviously still dealing with grief and guilt and anger all at the same time, and doesn’t mind being abrupt to her family, or caustic with strangers, or even being insulting, rude and scatological. But somehow beneath the coarse exterior we know there’s a tender girl with a broken heart.
Yes, they’re an unlikely pair. And they start out very rough. He can’t seem to stop talking about Nikki. Tiffany’s astonished to learn that he actually considers her crazier than he is. Here’s where the supporting cast offers us plenty of other focus. Pat’s parents, memorably portrayed by Robert de Niro and Jackie Weaver, have their own issues. He’s a bookie in Philly, but he still worries about his younger son. The older brother seems to be stuck in an emotional rut, also, though he’s still the “white sheep” of the family, and Mom just tries to keep peace in a volatile mix of moody belligerence.
Tiffany has a sister (Julia Stiles) who tries to be supportive, but well-meaning doesn’t always translate to constructive. Pat has a buddy from “the institution” who suffers his own obsessions, but at least they’ve been through it together and are rooting for each other.
Then we suddenly focus on this dance competition that Tiffany bargains with Pat to enter together, as if the time spent practicing together is going to be healing and restorative for them, and it is, actually. But just because they acknowledge they aren’t experts doesn’t mean that watching them holds any fascination.
But do we root for them? Yes. Because we like to see people who have struggled find some happiness, even if they have to get over themselves to get there.
Ronald P. Salfen is minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.