It would be fair to call David O. Russell an eccentric man. His filmmaking choices have been strange enough (his breakout hit was an indie film called Spanking the Monkey, for God’s sake), but his behavior outside the director’s chair has raised several eyebrows.
Though Russell’s on-set fight with Lily Tomlin is probably the most infamous case in point, Russell also traded blows with Jude Law, George Clooney, and James Caan. That isn’t even getting started on the whole saga of Nailed, a ridiculously troubled film that Russell quite famously walked away from before it could be completed (it remains unfinished to this day). Still, the coup de grace came last January, when Russell allegedly molested his transgendered niece by adoption. The charges were eventually dropped, but that’s still the kind of story that makes you go “WHAT?”
All of this craziness has led certain media spectators to wonder if Russell has gone mentally ill. I feel that this context is important to note when discussing Silver Linings Playbook, a film that Russell wrote and directed as an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s book about mental illness. As to how important the context is, well, you be the judge.
Anyway, this film tells the story of Patrick Solitano (Bradley Cooper). Pat’s been suffering his whole life from bipolar disorder, though he was never diagnosed until he discovered his wife (Nikki, played by Brea Bee) in flagrante delicto with another man. After beating his wife’s lover to the point of near-death, Pat is sent to a mental asylum by way of a court order. Our story begins eight months later, when Pat is released into his parents’ custody and Nikki’s restraining order is set firmly in place.
Here’s the thing to remember about Pat: While he was in the nuthouse, he learned that if one works hard and stays optimistic, anything is possible. Unfortunately, he interpreted that pearl of wisdom to mean “If one works hard and ignores everything he doesn’t want to hear, he’s guaranteed to get what he wants.”
Pat’s life and mental health are dictated by his incredible capacity for denial. He refuses to take medication, he denies that there’s anything wrong with him, and he steadfastly believes that Nikki is still in love with him. Try to tell Pat that he’s acting irrational, that he needs to take medication, that Nikki moved out of town and filed a goddamned restraining order against him, or anything else that he doesn’t want to hear, and Pat will just cancel that noise out.
In his mind, Pat is absolutely in the right about everything, and any evidence to the contrary is just negativity bringing him down. As such, Pat speaks without any brain-to-mouth filter and he acts with no regard to consequences. After all, Pat is so thoroughly entrenched in his own delusions that the notion of having to defend his actions seems inconceivable to him.
It would be an understatement to say that Pat is an unlikable protagonist, but the film manages to get away with that. For one thing, the film makes a point of proving Pat wrong at every turn and we’re never asked to buy into his bullshit. More importantly, the film is built around his development as a character, which means that getting rid of all those things that make him unlikable is the whole point of the story. It also helps that Bradley Cooper is a remarkably charismatic actor, and watching him play a totally unpredictable character who’s all energy without any control is entertaining to watch, if nothing else.
Getting back to the story, Pat spins his wheels until the end of the first act, when a bunch of things happen in quick succession. First, he happens to meet an old friend (Ronnie, played by John Ortiz) while on a run. Then, Ronnie’s wife (Veronica, played by Julia Stiles) invites Pat to dinner. There, Pat meets up with Veronica’s sister, Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband of three years just passed away.
Then Pat and Tiffany start to bond over antipsychotic medication. And our weird little romance arc is off and running.
Tiffany proves to be every bit as crazy as Pat, but without any of the latter’s self-delusion. She’s aggressive not only in her brutal honesty, but in the use of her sex appeal as well. As such, Tiffany is uniquely suited to call Pat out on his shit. Pat would — and indeed does — ignore advice from everyone else in the film, but Tiffany knows exactly what he needs to hear and how to make him listen. She speaks his language perfectly.
Of course, there are a lot of obstacles in their romance arc, none more problematic than their marital statuses. Tiffany has seemingly made peace with her husband’s death, yet Pat can’t understand why she still wears a ring. And of course, Pat still thinks of himself as happily married to the woman who’s no longer living in town.
Moreover, there’s no getting around the fact that these two are mentally and emotionally damaged. There’s no telling what could happen when two such people meet each other. They could be soul mates uniquely fitted to help each other as no one else could, or they could drive each other to further madness. Even worse, there’s the possibility that their happy feelings might be a side effect or maybe an overdose of some medication.
Of course, Pat and Tiffany don’t care about any of that. They’re just grateful to have found someone who can understand them. Also, it helps a great deal that they have a dance project to speed up the process of falling in love, but more on that later.
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence both turn in amazing work and their chemistry is a lot of fun to watch. Even so, there’s one actor in this film who earns a surprising amount of praise. I’m referring to Robert De Niro, here playing Pat’s father.
I had long since written De Niro off as a has-been, but he shows something in this film that I didn’t think he had in him anymore: Effort. Seriously, I was blown away with how much effort De Niro put into making a fleshed-out and sympathetic character. I realize this isn’t saying much, but it’s easily his best work in years. All the more shameful, then, that his performance was wasted on this character.
The deal with Pat Sr. is that he wants to open a restaurant, and he aims to raise the necessary money by gambling on football. As a direct result, Pat Sr. is established as a very superstitious man. Everything and everyone has to be in its place or his team will lose. Naturally, this means that Pat Jr. has to be on hand to lend his good vibes or the gambles are good as lost.
First of all, no one calls Pat Sr. out on how utterly stupid this non-logic is. If anything, the film seems to encourage the belief that Pat Jr.’s activities really do have a bearing on a football game that he’s totally disconnected from. The film implies time and again that every football game lost is Pat Jr.’s fault. Horseshit.
Secondly, Pat Sr. tries to use this as leverage on Pat Jr., working to talk him into spending some family time around the TV. It’s a noble sentiment, but there’s just one little problem: This arrangement is entirely one-sided. Pat Sr. wants his son to take part in his own interests, without any effort made as to learn what might interest Pat Jr. The two make no attempt to meet each other halfway, and no one calls them out on it.
What makes the matter even worse is that a solution was so readily accessible. Very early in the film, Pat Sr. comes home from a jog just as Pat Jr. goes out for a jog. Senior asks if Junior would like for them to run together, and the latter declines. I’d be interested to see if Junior’s mind would’ve changed at some point in his development, but the film obviously wasn’t, because the possibility is never addressed at any point afterward.
It’s really quite shameful how many thematic opportunities went to waste in this film. I’ll give you another example: We see multiple times that Ronnie is getting whipped by his overbearing wife. The guy is driven to madness and the film spends an entire storyline on the point. Alas, it’s a storyline without a sufficient ending.
Then there’s the matter of sibling rivalry. Tiffany is jealous of big sister Valerie, who always seems to get her way. Likewise, Pat is jealous of his own big brother (Jake, played by Shea Wigham), who turned out to be a successful overachiever. This serves as yet another example of how our romantic leads have such compatible baggage. However, both cases of sibling rivalry get only a couple of scenes apiece, and the whole theme is very underutilized. Hell, in most of the scenes between Pat and Jake, you’d never have guessed there was ever any rivalry between them to begin with!
As long as I’m dealing with the film’s nitpicks, let’s get back to the cast. Though the lead actors are both wonderful and the supporting cast is very strong, we’ve also got Chris Tucker to deal with. Not only is Tucker annoying as ever, but his character was completely useless. Take the guy out of the picture entirely and not a damned thing would have changed. In fact, the film would likely have been better for it.
Luckily, in spite of Chris Tucker’s foolhardy attempts at comic relief, this is still a very funny movie. There’s a great deal of humor to be found in our lead characters’ total absence of tact and social skills. The humor is pitch-black, to be sure, but it’s still very cleverly done.
In fact, “cleverly done” would be an apt description for the screenplay as a whole. There were so many times when I thought that the script might go in some formulaic direction, only to surprise me by going in a different way altogether. I can certainly appreciate such novel moments in a film, especially in such a tired film genre as the romantic comedy. On the other hand, I regret to say that the climax plays out pretty much exactly as I predicted it to, which was very much a letdown after two unpredictable hours.
The climax of the film is largely comprised of a dance competition, in which Pat and Tiffany perform the routine they spent half the film working on. It goes pretty much exactly as you’d expect after watching the film, but with a twist: The performance doesn’t look anything like the climax of any other movie focused on dance. In fact, it almost works as a parody of the cliched “competition” climax we all know and love. Hell, there’s one move that implicitly pokes direct fun at Dirty Dancing. That was a very inventive and funny little touch.
I hasten to add that the dance sequences all looked very good, with a lot of solid camerawork and editing to keep things interesting. Otherwise, the visuals were very “meh.” The cinematography and editing range from passable to outright amateurish. Early on, for example, there’s a shot in which the camera is shaking uncontrollably, and it’s just a car cruising down the street without any difficulty at all.
The soundtrack is noteworthy, especially since music is used as a recurring motif through the film. In particular, there’s one song that carries such emotional weight for Pat that he’s liable to lose all control when he hears it. That said, the score for the film is considerably more low-key. It’s so low-key, in fact, that I was shocked to find that it was composed by none other than Danny Elfman. The guy is known for composing such ostentatious music, who knew he had such subtlety in him?
The film has some irritating narrative flaws, and a lot of thematic opportunities went untapped, but it’s the lead characters who make Silver Linings Playbook worth a look in spite of all that. These characters are so well-directed, so well-written, and so superbly acted that they brighten up the whole movie. In the hands of David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence (with considerable help from Robert De Niro, of all people), this film redeems itself by being heartfelt, inventive, and darkly humorous.
The film isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a sweet, cute, demented little romance. It’s a perfect happy medium for those filmgoers who want something lighter than Lincoln, but more mature and challenging than Rise of the Guardians. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then by all means, give this film a watch.