A romantic comedy seems like an odd choice for director David O. Russell, a man who loves his rage and dysfunction. But Silver Linings Playbook is not your standard rom-com. Though it traffics in screwball set pieces and loopily works its way to the inevitable happy ending, there’s not a single character here that’s not damaged and full of rage to some degree. So, perhaps it’s not such an odd choice after all.
Silver Linings Playbook, taken from a novel by Matthew Quick, revolves around Pat (Bradley Cooper), a man who was committed to a mental institution after his undiagnosed bipolar disorder exhibited itself in the beating of his wife’s lover. When he’s released in the custody of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), he sets out to save his marriage and get his silver lining.
Pat is soon invited to dinner at a friend’s house, where he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow whose brash lack of social skills and history with antipsychotics fits nicely with Pat’s. They are two people so consumed by their personal pain, they can’t conceive that the balm for their misery might lie in another person. Instead, they each have their own way of dealing — Pat has begun a rigid program of self-improvement, which he hopes will show his wife how much he’s changed; Tiffany, after going through a period of frequent indiscriminate sex, has entered a dance competition, for which she needs a partner. Tiffany strikes a deal with Pat: If he partners with her, she will help him get back his wife.
What follows is a fairly standard romantic comedy, but where most flicks in this genre rely on big, madcap laughs coming from unlikely occurrences, Silver Linings Playbook is predicated on psychic pain. The laughs are there, but much of the humor is mined from sadness. It’s not far off to say Silver Linings Playbook is kind of like Russell’s last film, The Fighter, but with laughs and dancing. Now, granted, that description probably won’t appeal to everyone, but it worked for me.
The rom-com convention of wacky supporting characters isn’t lost here. Pat’s dad, a bookie with OCD issues, proves that a damaged apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Pat’s mom is a classic example of a codependent wife and mother. And Pat’s best friend appears to have everything together, but it soon becomes clear that he’s as screwed up as everybody else. And let’s not forget Pat’s other buddy (played with impressive subtlety by Chris Tucker), who periodically escapes from the mental hospital for the occasional chaotic fun-filled scene.
If the film I’ve described sounds eccentric and not congruent, it is. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. To a large degree, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds because of its rough edges. There are no flashy directorial flourishes. Russell keeps things very simple, serving the material. The closest he comes to being showy is some hyperactive editing and atypical needle-drops in the score.
For a lot of people, the big draw of Silver Linings Playbook will be its stars, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Cooper’s usual smug charm is damped down, allowing him to give a solid performance of a man in pain, with only the occasional lapse into scenery chewing. It’s his chemistry with Lawrence that drives the flick.
Before this, I’d only seen Lawrence in X-Men: First Class (I know, I know), and I now understand what all the fuss is about. As Tiffany, she invests her character with a raw emotional truth and brassy chutzpah that, in hands of a lesser actress, could easily be portrayed as a series of tics and grimaces. Plus, she’s a pretty good dancer. I sense a scad of nominations for her during the upcoming awards season.
Russell has done a great job of filling out his cast. De Niro seems back from the dead in his role as Pat’s father. It’s been hard to reconcile the actor’s past greatness with his recent roles, but his work here goes a long way toward making up for dreck like Little Fockers. Though to be fair, he’s also shined in other smaller films lately, like Stone and Being Flynn. Also worth mentioning is John Ortiz, who takes the tiny role of Pat’s best friend and makes it both funny and touching.
Russell’s big success here is taking drama and comedy and reconciling them in a way that doesn’t feel forced or clichéd. And apparently Russell liked toiling in the fields of romantic comedy — perhaps “anti-romantic comedy” is more accurate — because his next film, Nailed, looks like it’s covering similar ground, yet with an even zanier premise. But I’ll worry about that when it’s released. For now, just let me enjoy Silver Linings Playbook. For a film about a bunch of miserable people, it made me pretty happy.