Silver Screen: Silver Linings Playbook ***1/2
Director David O. Russell has a reputation in Hollywood for being eccentric. This is an impressive feat in and of itself; it’s like being known among carnies as shiftless or being called fanatical by a member of the National Rifle Association. It means Russell’s big-league crazy.
But that weirdness comes through wonderfully in his movies, which includes the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey and the awkward but ambitious philosophical inquiry I Heart Huckabee’s. Even when Russell works within well-established genre confines, his unique approach begets distinctive, memorable films: the dark family comedy of Flirting with Disaster, or gunshot wounds filmed from inside the bodies of the victims in the stark war satire Three Kings. His last film, Best Picture nominee The Fighter, was his most conventional film yet, but the handheld cameras and tight closeups gave it a raw documentary feel that helped highlight Christian Bale’s harrowing and totally convincing performance as a crackhead. The Fighter was consistently surprising despite outwardly following the standard inspirational sports-movie trajectory.
Russell’s latest, the Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook, has a more ostensibly quirky premise, but it feels safe and staid in a way his work never has before. It’s a romance about two troubled people who find each other, with a dance contest looming on the horizon clearly established as the film’s big finale. The problem isn’t so much that Russell takes us where we already think we’re going; it’s that he takes such a familiar path to get there.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) is freshly returned from a stay in a mental hospital following a bipolar breakdown brought on by his crumbling marriage, but that doesn’t stop him from immediately planning to win his ex-wife back. Meanwhile, his compulsive gambler of a father (Robert De Niro) is trying to get off the ground as a bookie despite his irrational faith in his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, much to the chagrin of Pat’s long-suffering mother (Jackie Weaver).
To distract him from his continuing delusions about getting his wife back, mutual friends set Pat up on a date with a fellow troubled soul, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a lonely young widow with a similar streak of antisocial behavior. Manic, determined Pat sees this as an opportunity to recruit someone to help him keep tabs on his ex-wife, an assumption Tiffany is quick to exploit in exchange for Pat volunteering to be her partner in an upcoming dance contest.
Despite its too-convenient trajectory, there’s a lot to like about Silver Linings Playbook. Though they exist in a story that’s entirely the stuff of romantic-comedy fantasy, the characters themselves are sharply drawn and brilliantly realized. Cooper does an ace job subverting his pretty-boy type and conveying Pat’s manic frenzies. Russell, drawing from the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick, implies a lot about Pat’s dysfunctional family history without forcing the audience to any conclusions. We can see the root of Pat’s problems in his father’s ill-advised gambling and compulsive adherence to superstition, but Russell doesn’t make explicit or easy connections, nor does he vilify the older man. De Niro gives one of his best and most sympathetic performances in years. Silver Linings Playbook works best as an actor’s showcase, and Cooper, De Niro, Weaver, and Lawrence all rise to the challenge.
The characters are so nuanced and intriguing that it seems a shame to trap them in a storyline that succumbs to exactly the kind of magical thinking to which De Niro’s hopelessly optimistic character falls prey. The notion that an unbalanced person just needs another unbalanced person to keep them level and focused seems as pernicious a delusion as the one from which our two leads are trying to escape.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.