By: Daniel Reynolds
Silver Linings Playbook is the type of film that will have you questioning when exactly it is OK to just accept cliches. To be fair, this is the small ‘c’ cliche variety we’re talking about here, because as it goes, David O. Russell’s newest film does everything it can to smash through the typical. Still, it should come as no surprise that the two stars of the film, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, playing two dysfunctional people found first at odds with one another, end up in a loving embrace, each finding a way to complete the other. Yikes, I just used ‘complete the other’ in a sentence; I think the cliches are rubbing off on me. Or maybe, it is just fine this time to want Cooper’s Pat Cositano and Lawrence’s Tiffany to get their shit together and be happy. Yeah, you know what, I think it’s fine.
First, let’s meet Pat; he’s bi-polar and capable of violent mood swings, one of which gets him detained in a mental institution that his mother, played by the tragically underused Jacki Weaver, is now pulling him out of after eight months. He’s apparently lost his house, his job as a substitute teacher (though how he ever got that gig is never explained) and, most importantly, his wife. In short, Pat’s got problems and he may be a tad crazy (more of that small ‘c’ kind though; he’s still the hero of the story). That Cooper can elicit some sympathy for this character is a testament to a fine performance, one that is clear-eyed and direct as possible while generally avoiding the pratfalls of other “mental patient” roles.
Next, we are introduced to Tiffany; she’s depressed, a recent widow and something of a nymphomaniac. She lives in a renovated garage behind her parents’ house and practices her dance moves for a competition. She has also lost her job, and, wouldn’t you know it, may be a touch crazy, too. Lawrence brings the requisite heat to Tiffany, and under her dark eyeshadow is a believable pool of sadness and regret. It would be easy at this point to just roll your eyes and urge the film to get on with it, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want all involved to be happy, even as I could see the film’s plan and conclusion (capital ‘C’ this time) laid out clearly before me.
Those plans, of course, belong to the screenwriter and man behind the camera, David O. Russell. Now, hay has been made of Russell’s gradual turn towards crowd pleasing (and award winning) films. After years in the Hollywood wilderness as a result of his curious I Heart Huckabees – which, for the record, I recall enjoying – Russell returned from exile (or Hollywood jail, if you ask George Clooney or Lily Tomlin) to make 2010’s The Fighter, a box office success and Oscar winner. That film, too, ran a familiar story route that included a burgeoning romance, a triumph over the odds, and family tensions (it was even based on a true story!). However, while The Fighter keeps its plot largely aligned to one train of thought, Silver Linings Playbook stews a mix of sports, mental illness, father-son problems and a dance competition. There are some that would say Russell is crazy, too.
The chosen technique for the film is established early on as we are constantly jostled into and out of the frame. There are hard zoom-ins, shaky back-and-forths, and a real claustrophobic tone that could generously be described as anxious. All the better, since along with our aforementioned crazy soon-to-be lovebirds, the Playbook is stacked with a bunch of other off-kilter side characters all dealing with their own share of neurosis. There is Danny, played by Chris Tucker (yes, that Chris Tucker), a fellow mental patient, who pops up intermittently throughout the film to, as his character would describe it, ‘black it up’. The remarkable John Ortiz as old friend Ronnie lends a hand to offer perhaps a counterpoint to the joys of marriage, as he seems constantly ready to burst from the pressure of his work and home life. And finally, Robert De Niro, in what may be his first bit of actual effective acting since he started parodying himself at the turn of the century, plays the senior Solitano, a man so caught up in ritual, superstition and the Philadelphia Eagles that it strains his relationship with his youngest son. If for no other reason, see this film for a nice reminder of what De Niro can do with a real character.
But let’s get back to talking cliches. Silver Linings Playbook stacks up a line of familiar notions, as any film that heavily employs football metaphor is apt to do. Yet, it spins them off with enough noise and energy that we end up feeling wrung out and moved by it all, regardless. Can competing in a dance competition and falling in love cure mental illness? Can a winning football bet mend fences between father and son? You know, probably not. It feels almost goofy to describe the film in those black-and-white terms, it’s like the difference between X’s and O’s and a live football game. Silver Linings Playbook knows where it’s going, just as we do, but bursts so full of life that the cliches slide to the background and the audience exhales. And I’m OK with that.