David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is – at times – an interesting take on an otherwise standard romantic comedy plot. The ‘hook’, if you want to call it that, is that the two main characters who are gradually falling in love with each other in this film both suffer from mental health issues. A tentative, testy and friction-heavy courtship develops between the pair which echoes the awkward relationships they have with their immediate close families. Yet, somewhat disappointingly, it follows a straightforward romcom pattern in which the relationship slowly builds, then appears to be teetering on the brink of collapse, before – hallelujah! – it all works out with a kiss in the street late at night.
The two characters at the centre of this Philadelphia-based love story are Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence). Pat suffers from bipolar disorder, and at the beginning of the film we witness his release from a mental health facility into the care of his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and father Pat Sr (Robert De Niro), an illegal bookmaker trying to raise funds in order to open his own restaurant. Pat’s eight-month hospitalisation was enforced as a result of a brutal attack on a man he caught in the shower with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). Though he is prescribed medication to manage his condition, he doesn’t believe he needs to take it, and tells his therapist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) that he has a new outlook on life – summarised by the word ‘excelsior’ – in which he attempts to see the good, or silver lining, in any challenging situation. Despite the presence of a restraining order Pat intends to show Nikki that he can control his temper and that they can both return to the life they knew before. Tiffany, meanwhile, is struggling to cope with her own neuroses and grief following the recent death of her husband, and bonds with Pat when she meets him at the house of her sister Veronica (Julia Stiles), whose husband Ronnie (John Ortiz) is friends with Pat. Pat and Tiffany enter a local dancing competition, but will Pat forget about Nikki long enough to notice how much he has in common with his dance partner? Answers on a postcard marked clearly ‘Of course he will – such is the Hollywoodification of life’ to the usual address please.
Both Tiffany and Pat endure complicated, tense relationships with their siblings and parents. Tiffany – perhaps through a degree of unchecked jealousy – quickly loses her temper when she is in her older sister’s presence, although Veronica’s blunt way of speaking doesn’t help matters at all. Pat’s brother Jake (Shea Wigham) is equally insensitive, and the two men have grown distant over time. Tiffany lives in a converted garage next to her parents’ house, while Pat’s circumstances mean that he has taken up temporary residence in his childhood bedroom; in both cases their concerned parents are watchful, although Tiffany’s only appear briefly in one scene, sadly. (This infantilazation of Pat is subtly complemented by his own decision to read the same books in his bedroom that are studied by the pupils of grade school teacher Nikki.)
Russell’s film concentrates more on Pat’s relationship with his parents (and, principally, Pat’s relationship with Pat Sr). The implication is that Pat Sr’s personality hasn’t exactly helped his son’s fragile mental state over the years, and when the superstitious father blames Pat for losses by the Philadelphia Eagles he is quick to chastise him with phrases like ‘You’re useless!’ (There is also, obviously, the implication that a genetic link accounts for Pat Jr’s illness.)
De Niro plays Pat Sr as an old rogue, albeit an old rogue with a quick temper, and it’s entirely possible that the character may have a milder form of bipolar disease himself. His Philadelphia Eagles obsession and betting-related woes endeared him to me, although that kind of thing could easily put other viewers off the character. The veteran actor really gets into the part despite the fact most of his scenes take place in the same couple of rooms and go over the same few topics; it is without doubt De Niro’s best performance for something like 15 years. Dolores – by contrast – seems more and more like a doormat as the movie progresses, though she has apparently managed the behaviour of Pat Sr for many years and does not seem daunted by Pat Jr’s condition. As the only woman in a house that once contained three men she has clearly had to sound off on occasion, but the volume of her voice may well have dimmed over time. While the character isn’t exactly a timid mouse, it’s hard to feel anything but sympathy as she rolls her eyes and protests to no avail while Pat Sr makes one outlandish, risky bet after another. Jacki Weaver equals De Niro’s turn with her own terrific performance, and they are an entirely believable couple.
It is interesting to watch the Pat / Tiffany relationship develop during the movie. The characters are equally combustible and unpredictable, and Cooper and Lawrence are both suited to this kind of role; their best scenes involve snarling aggression and sharp tongued assassinations, and both appear to bring the best out of De Niro when he joins them in front of the cameras. I can’t really attest to the accuracy of Cooper’s portrayal of a man with bipolar disorder, but to these uneducated eyes it seemed believable. As good as the two leads are, having watched this after seeing Russell’s highly enjoyable American Hustle, I do wonder whether the director has veered toward Unhinged Brad and Bellicose Jen just a little too readily in these past two films. (Lawrence’s 2013 Oscar win for her role was well-deserved, as were the nominations for Weaver, Cooper and De Niro. I also thought Julia Stiles was good in her few scenes.) Handily it gives his films a little turbo boost every now and then, but both actors are more than capable of incorporating a wider, more subtle range of emotion into their performances, if required.
There is a clear link between Silver Linings Playbook and the dysfunctional family and struggling marriage of Russell’s earlier film, The Fighter, and perhaps it’s worth noting – without wishing to come over all TMZ here – that both these films have appeared in the wake of the director’s separation from his first wife in 2007. It is far less serious than The Fighter, though, and the comic tone here actually recalls that of Russell’s earlier movies Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster and *shudder* I Heart Huckabees. The moments of humour in Silver Linings Playbook are judged well; there is never a danger of the director mining mental health issues for cheap laughs, and instead the amusing moments are shown simply as ‘part of life’, even when they occur as a direct result of the respective personality disorders. The screwball final act, however, does feel out of step with what has gone before, but aside from that the humour is worked into the film very well indeed.
Given the strength of the acting and the screenplay (by Russell, adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel The Silver Linings Playbook), this stands above a great many romantic comedies, but infuriatingly it still adheres to the genre’s tried and tested (and boring) conventions. There is an attempt to disguise a wholly predictable ending with a series of relationship ups and downs (as soon as I get a sniff of the ‘will-they-won’t-they-we’re-gonna-keep-you-guessing schtick I know exactly how it’s going to pan out), and this formulaic structure results in a nagging sense that the film is something of a missed opportunity; from a director as brave and as willing to fuck around with normal genre exercises as Russell it’s disappointing. Certain interesting themes – such as Tiffany sleeping with half the town in the wake of her husband’s death – are ditched for the final act, as if they don’t quite fit the romcom mould neatly enough. Maybe it’s to avoid confusing people who simply want to feel happy when two leading characters get together and are able to move on from their respective traumas at the same time (as if that would actually happen in tandem in real life). Yeah, it’s the crowd-pleasing volte-face that grates here. What’s annoying is that for two thirds of the movie I felt like I wasn’t watching the same-old same-old romcom that ties itself up neatly at the end, but it turns out I was, after all. Russell’s ending is distinctly underwhelming: it’s the suggestion that a kiss is the end to all the characters’ problems that I dislike, because before the final act the director has seemingly gone to great lengths to create characters with complex psychological problems who display completely unpredictable (and often irrational) behaviour. Are we supposed to believe that love heals everything? What’s with the ‘happy families’ final scene? I’m not sure how I’d feel about this, exactly, if I suffered from depression myself.
That said, there’s a good chance that the film’s structure and shift in tone is a deliberate reflection of aspects of Pat’s condition. I couldn’t possibly say for sure, and ordinarily I’d dismiss such a thought as being overly generous toward the director in question, but with Russell in the chair I definitely think it’s worth entertaining the notion. After all, American Hustle was a film about forgery and deception that is itself a meticulous forgery of the work of Martin Scorsese. I think Russell is someone who thinks long and hard about the framework for his stories and how the film as a whole is able to reflect the themes of the plot. And yet maybe it’s just a shitty third act that sits awkwardly next to the rest of the film.
Silver Linings Playbook is at times an enjoyable romantic comedy, though it also manages to disappoint and could have been so much better. The acting is of a high standard (even Chris Tucker tones down his usual overacting as Pat’s fellow patient Danny), the camerawork is occasionally interesting, it’s sharply-scripted and Danny Elfman’s score is typically moving, but it’s also predictable, the ending ties things up far too neatly and some of the soundtrack choices – principally Led Zeppelin’s What Is And What Should Never Be and The White Stripes’ Hello Operator – are misjudged. The presence of one or two ‘sore thumb’ pop acts – Jessie J, for example – amidst all the classic rock (Dylan, Zeppelin, Rare Earth) and jazz (Nina Simone, The Dave Brubeck Quartet) smacks of record company product placement, too. Still, the related themes of gambling in life / gambling on football are thankfully not linked together in too heavy-handed a manner and Russell’s handling of bittersweet comedy is again impressive.
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell, Matthew Quick
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver
Running Time: 122 minutes