David O. Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook would probably like to be remembered for his ability to get terrific performances from ensemble casts, creating original films from conventional formats and a talent to find humour in the most unlikely (and inappropriate) of places. Unfortunately he will most likely go down in history for his impatience, his violent outbursts and for antagonising his cast and crew.
Perhaps it is fitting then that he would be drawn to make a movie like Silver Linings Playbook, a film where the main characters have just as much trouble keeping their emotions in line as he does. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a former teacher whose undiagnosed bi-polar disorder lost him his job, his marriage and his freedom. He is released from his psychiatric hospital after eight months and is determined to use his new found positive philosophy to work out his problems with his family and reconnect with his wife. However because of his past behaviour she has taken out a restraining order against him. To get around this he enlists the help of Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany to pass letter on to her. In return he reluctantly becomes her partner in a dance competition, the steaks of which get higher throughout the course of the movie.
As long as Russell keeps making films like this (and as long as the making of those films remains incident free) he should have no trouble shaking that image and making sure he is best known for all the things he’d like to be known for. It’s all here. The cast is spectacular, all the way from the two lead roles to the background artists. Robert De Niro who plays Cooper’s dad give the most compelling performance he’s given since 1995’s Heat. Bradley Cooper (himself with an unfair reputation to shed after his involvement with The Hangover 2) bestows a manic intensity to his portrayal of a person for whom mental illness is a constant cross to bear. Jennifer Lawrence conveys mood swings that seem both comically absurd and perfectly natural. Her mood changes in a blink of the screen and you never believe that whatever emotion she is illustrating she isn’t completely consumed by.
The energy that these actors bring to their characters gives them a volatility that makes every scene unpredictable. You believe that any character can react in any way, every line is up for interpretation and with the complexity of these characters, a punch is just as likely as a hug. Such tension can be alienating, uncomfortable for the viewers to watch and can detach them from the characters. This not only makes the humour of the film more effective, it’s what makes it essential. Laughter keeps movie goers engaged with the narrative and helps them relate to the characters.
At the heart of what makes Silver Linings Playbook work is how it satirises western attitudes towards mental illness. One character expresses his repressed rage by listening to Metallica and freaking out in his garage; Pat’s dad has a worship of routine bordering on OCD, catalysed by an irrational belief in superstition. And yet because of their associations with frivolities such as sport and wealth they are considered to be perfectly functioning members of society. It doesn’t hurt that they (mainly) keep their insanity hidden behind locked doors, as opposed to Pat and Tiffany who are open about their afflictions. It’s as if their honesty and lack of shame is what makes them social pariahs, not their actual mental abnormalities. The contrast between the two worlds is the rich vein of humour that the film sources its laughs from, yet it never feels exploitative or like its shoving its observations down your throat.
The film also does an admirable job at sustaining a coherent narrative flow despite having numerous genres it has to balance. Family drama, sports film, romantic comedy, plucky underdog movie, David O. Russell hasn’t made it easy on himself. It works to the films advantage though, as each genre helps to relive the film of the other genres clichés. The structure being so scattershot also helps reinforce the themes of mental illness as well as preventing the film from becoming too formulaic. Or at least that’s what you think; in reality it’s merely delaying it.
The last act of the film sees you ambushed by the very clichés that that the film endeared itself to you for avoiding. All of a sudden you are bombarded with ridiculous wagers, high steaks risks, last minute conflict, contrived dilemma and races against time. It’s like the film had either forgotten to add these elements until the last minute or had lost its confidence at keeping the audience’s attention. You keep expecting a twist to come and turn these tropes on their heads, perhaps denouncing the concept of the Silver Lining altogether; but alas no, it really is as clichéd as it looks.
But as damning as that may sound, the experience isn’t ruined. As much as the screenplay manages to make a hash of the ending, it puts enough care and attention into rest of the movie so that these characters still mean something to you. At least enough for you to care about the conclusion of the story no matter how predictable it has become. Silver Linings Playbook is ultimately then a triumph, but is so because of how it builds up its conflicts, rather than how it executes them.