Silver Linings Playbook (United States, 2012)November 13, 2012
Silver Linings Playbook is a quirky adult romantic comedy that goes beyond the standard rhythms of the genre. Although this is a funny movie, there's an edge to the humor, not unlike what we have become accustomed to in the work of Alexander Payne. The director is David O. Russell, who's as mercurial a filmmaker as one is likely to find; his films are unique entities. To the extent that Silver Linings Playbook shares traits with another of Russell's productions, Flirting with Disaster comes to mind more readily than 2010's The Fighter. Ultimately, this is an engaging, uplifting, and life-affirming motion picture that reminds viewers that it is possible to do interesting things with a romantic comedy while still sticking to some of the conventions.
As unlikely as it might sound, Silver Linings Playbook uses mental illness as a catalyst for romance. For the most part, the main character's bipolar disorder is treated with respect - it is neither overblown nor used as fodder for juvenile humor. For about 2/3 of the running length, Silver Linings Playbook is about a character coping with this on a daily basis: taking or rejecting his meds (because he feels "clearer" without them), opening up to his therapist or opting to stay closed, coping with his triggers, trying to avoid getting too high or too low. As the movie opens, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is just getting out of a hospital where he has been confined for the past eight months. Now, he must find a way to avoid going back. And it's not easy.
His driving ambition is to reunite with his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), whose infidelity led to the breakdown that resulted in him being institutionalized. She has taken out a restraining order, which prevents him from actively hunting her down, but he's not above using a little subterfuge. That's where Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) comes in. She has mental problems of her own (there's a funny scene in which they discuss the relative merits of various medications) but is a possible conduit to Nikki. She agrees to deliver a letter in return for a favor - in order to enter a dance competition, she needs a partner. Meanwhile, Pat tries to re-engage with his sympathetic mother (Jacki Weaver) and gruff father (Robert DeNiro). The latter is a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan and wants to bond with his son by watching games with him - something that holds little interest for Pat. As he bulldozes ahead with singleminded determination, he fails to realize how worried his parents are about him and that Tiffany harbors feelings deeper than friendship.
If there's a criticism to be leveled at Silver Linings Playbook, it's that the mental illness elements recede into the background during the final half-hour to allow things to progress as a more conventional romantic comedy. The transition isn't jarring or necessarily unwelcome, especially when one considers the strong chemistry evident between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence - these two crackle with energy - but there is a sense that potentially more intriguing ground may have gone unplowed.
Over the past few years, Cooper has raised his profile considerably (due in large part to The Hangover), but this is a rare "straight" portrayal. The movie is a comedy, but the character is grounded. Lawrence, despite retaining the dark hair from The Hunger Games, requires less than a minute to get us to forget about Katniss. She and Cooper are about as well-matched as a screen couple can be; those who appreciate their chemistry can re-visit it next year when they co-star as husband and wife in Serena. Robert DeNiro, perhaps having finally realized it's possible to be in a comedy and not make a fool out of himself, reminds us of why he was once considered among the greatest actors of his generation before Billy Crystal, Bullwinkle, and the Fockers turned him into a laughingstock.
I'm a sucker for a good romantic comedy, and this is the best I've seen in some time. The characters feel more earthy and passionate and the fairy tale elements are dialed back. The film ends predictably, but there are times when the path to get there isn't obvious. The narrative is more substantial than we expect from entries into this genre and the humor is organic to the experience, not a series of tacked-on jokes. The best romantic comedies have three ingredients: well-developed characters, strong chemistry between the leads, and an interesting storyline to propel their relationship along. Silver Linings Playbook lacks none of these and, as a result, it will likely appeal to critics, general movie-goers, and perhaps the Academy.
Silver Linings Playbook (United States, 2012)
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, Brea Bee
Screenplay: David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company