'Playbook' — and its stars — ring true

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'Playbook' — and its stars — ring true

Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper) has a lot on his mind. His mother Delores (Jacki Weaver) has just sprung him from a mental institution after an eight-month stay.

Seems he walked in on his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) and a co-worker taking a shower in his own home and nearly beat the guy to death. Well, can you really blame him?

Problem is, he's been suffering from a bipolar disorder all of his life, which up until this incident was undiagnosed. Still, he's gotten good advice, is intent on turning negatives into positives and feels that if he can stay the course, he can create a silver lining for his life.

Now, all he wants to do is win his wife back. Of course, there is the issue of the restraining order that might be a problem.

Pat Jr. isn't the only one suffering. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is also dealing with her world being turned upside down. A widow at 24, she's trying to put her life back together again, though her reckless behavior obscures this.

A series of meaningless sexual encounters earns her a reputation she doesn't deserve, and the anger bred from confusion and frustration that erupts from her now and again does her no favors. But she's found a release through dancing and is intent on entering a ballroom competition. Problem is, she has no partner.

The solution is Pat Jr., whom she blackmails into helping her, promising to contact his wife on his behalf.

In adapting Matthew Quick's novel to the screen, director David O. Russell ("Three Kings," "The Fighter") has succeeded in pulling off a juggling act with a variety of different tones and issues and rendering each of them with sincerity. That's he able to make a climax replete with clichs work somehow is all the more remarkable.

Grief, mental illness, family dysfunction and denial all get their turn under the microscope, each given the requisite amount of gravity but ultimately seen through a lens of optimism and hope.

What's interesting about the film is that nearly every character is on edge and it becomes obvious that each of them is just one unguarded moment away from going down the same road Pat Jr. did. Chief among them is Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who has his own anger problems — so much so that he's been banned from attending Philadelphia Eagles games for excessive fighting in the stadium.

Still, that doesn't keep him from obsessively rooting for them with all of his OCD compulsions. He believes the remote controls must be in their proper place, an Eagles handkerchief must be held just right and other elements must be just so if they're to win. That some of these change from week to week doesn't strike him as odd.

While Russell does a masterful job of sustaining the proper tone throughout, he's also an expert at casting and knows well enough to get out of their way and let his actors perform.

Cooper proves he's more than just another hunk with a hit comedy under his belt. De Niro has never been more likable or sympathetic as his character comes to realize that the sins of the father have been visited on his son. Chris Tucker, as Danny, a friend Pat Jr. met while institutionalized, shows he's capable of much more than cracking wise.

But it's Lawrence who steals the show. She has more than a few spotlight moments and she makes every one count. Chief among them is a scene in which she invades Pat's home and sets everyone straight on the state of things. The actress commands the room, with even De Niro staying out of the way to let her shine.

It's a star-making moment if there ever was one, yet Lawrence's fiercely delivered sense of honesty is what makes it work.

At one point, Pat Jr. tells Tiffany that perhaps they know something about life that others don't because of their experiences. This is worth remembering as each is able to emerge stronger for having been where they were and are able to live their lives with a sense of awareness that others are afraid to embrace.

This is their silver lining, one that was hard won and ultimately worth the trials they were forced to endure. That salvation through introspection is possible is the theme of this wonderful film and that it is rendered with such optimism and sincerity makes it special and unique.

'Silver Linings Playbook'

4 stars out of 4

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham and Julia Stiles.

Directed by David O. Russell; produced by Bruce Cohen, Donna Gigliotti and Jonathan Gordon; screenplay by Russell (based on the novel by Matthew Quick).

A Weinstein Company release. 122 minutes. Rated R (language and some sexual content). At the Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Players save leisurely "Late Quartet." 3 stars out of 4.

I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again: A good cast can salvage a film saddled with an average script. Such is the case with "A Late Quartet," a movie that begins with an intriguing premise that ends up hobbled by a tepid pace and questionable plot points.

But the cast, which includes Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, ends up finding some truthful moments amid a story that threatens to segue into soap opera territory on more than one occasion.

Classical cellist Peter Mitchell (Walken) explains to us early on that Beethoven's late string quartets are meant to be played continuously, even though the player's instruments will fall out of tune, necessitating that they must adjust to one another in order to complete it. More than a few adjustments need to be made to The Fugue String Quartet he belongs to as he's diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's Disease and tells his three partners he intends for the first concert of their upcoming season to be his last.

Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the first violinist, pragmatic and practical, realizes the tragedy of this situation but knows the group must find a replacement to go on. Robert (Hoffman), the second violinist, insecure and tired of playing second fiddle, contends that if they continue, he wants a more prominent role.

Juliette (Keener), who plays viola, melancholy and conflicted, is far more concerned about Peter's health than the future of the group.

The dynamic between the four principals is the focal point of the story, and you can tell the history between them is complicated and littered with fond memories, hidden resentments and bitter regrets. Much of this is conveyed through glances the four share as they play as well as scenes in which the past between them is slowly revealed.

One of the problems with the film is that first-time director Yaron Zilberman takes far too long to get to the nuts and bolts of what makes these characters tick. Even more troubling are some of the turns the plot takes that are not only predictable but a bit cheap, while very little time is spent on Peter's trials.

Still, it's hard not to watch the quartet of principals and not be engaged. Each grounds scenes that could have come off as melodramatic or insecure by lesser talents, and it is during these moments that the film is watchable. They all manage to maintain a subtle approach despite the histrionics that reign about them at times, which ultimately pays off during the emotional climax.

Yes, there are some off-key notes along the way, but these four play through to create a portrait of friendship that has endured its share of triumphs and trials and is stronger for it.

Cruise right at home in "Reacher." 3 stars out of 4.

In light of recent events, it's rather difficult watching the opening of Tom Cruise's "Jack Reacher," as a sniper picks off five innocent victims from a distance.

Though I wouldn't say it's done in a casual or callous way, the lens through which we see such acts on screen — at least until our collective sense of denial kicks in or memory fades — has changed, and we can't help but ask the question about why such firearms are warranted.

If you're able to put this sequence aside and look at the film objectively, you'll soon get sucked into the mystery and intrigue of it. Reacher is the main character of a series of 16 novels by Lee Child, this being an adaptation of the ninth one.

He's a former U.S. Army military police major who since having mustered out, drifts across the country, righting wrongs where he sees them or helping out old friends. Such is the case as the suspect of the sniper killings requests that Reacher (Cruise) be brought in to help with the investigation.

What unfolds is a rather intriguing and engaging crime procedural in which our hero uncovers one clue after another, puts all the pieces together to solve the mystery and beats the hell out of anyone who stands in his way.

He's helped along the way by Helen (Rosamund Pike), the defense attorney for the accused and while she makes the most of her moments, the bad guys nearly steal the show.

Director Werner Herzog makes the most of his few moments as "The Zec," the mastermind behind the conspiracy in question, while Charlie (Jai Courtney), the actual sniper, proves to be a worthy foe for Reacher.

There's no doubt that Cruise is hoping this is the start of another lucrative franchise he can fall back on — and with all of the source material at his disposal, this seems to be a likely scenario. Here's hoping that any future installments have as sure a hand guiding them as director Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects") and that they focus as much on Reacher's smarts and personality as is done here. This helps distinguish him from the star's other action heroes and reminds us that Cruise is capable of much more than just feats of derring-do.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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