Love, at least as portrayed in the vast majority of Hollywood movies, is a crazy enterprise. So, perhaps it’s not that odd to see indie auteur David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees) tackling the subject with what, for him, amounts to such straight-ahead fervor. Russell’s self-consciously quirky films have dabbled in kinked-out sexuality, manic behavior and the occasional existential crisis. But at their heart, they’re conventionally assembled, populist entertainment. Peel away the many layers of his latest, the largely uncategorizable Silver Linings Playbook, for example, and you’re left with what in any other setting would simply be described as a romantic comedy.
Silver Linings Playbook, based on Matthew Quick’s seriocomic 2008 novel of the same name, starts by introducing us to Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a former schoolteacher from Philadelphia. When we first meet him, he’s busy pep-talking himself in a state mental hospital. According to him, things are looking up. At least that’s what he’s trying convince himself of. About eight months ago, Pat had a mini-major breakdown, motivated by his wife’s infidelity and his own “undiagnosed bipolar disorder.” Now he’s emerging from court-ordered treatment and getting on with his life. Unfortunately this involves moving back in with his parents, trying to get a job and expecting a happy reunion with his cheating spouse. None of these situations is likely to end well for our boy Pat.
For starters, mom and dad (Aussie Jacki Weaver from Animal Kingdom and Robert De Niro from, you know, everything Robert De Niro starred in) aren’t exactly models of stability. Dad’s a rageaholic Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who’s been banned from the stadium for fighting. Now he spends his weekends taking illegal bets on football games. Mom’s more or less living in a chipper state of denial about everything. Taking up residence in his parents’ attic, Pat starts up a fitness regimen and plots out how he can cross paths with his wife, Nikki (the wonderfully named unknown Brea Bee), without violating the restraining order. Initially, Silver Linings Playbook plays out like a more manic, sports-obsessed version of Bottle Rocket. But Russell and Quick pile on the queer plot elements like a starving person at a Las Vegas buffet.
It’s not easy to puncture the skin of Silver Linings Playbook. It’s a challenging film to laugh at. It’s difficult to suss out where it’s going. Most of all, it’s hard to tell who to like or what to think of them. Pat makes for a frustrating protagonist—a clearly unbalanced man who refuses, like so many people, to take his anti-psychotic meds because they make him “fuzzy.” As a result, he careens from one uncomfortably bad move to another. Among those bad moves is his increasingly close association with a young neighborhood girl named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games). Tiffany is friends with Nikki, and Pat prevails upon her to deliver clandestine love notes to his estranged wife. The big problem is that Tiffany’s got problems of her own. Her husband, a firefighter, was killed in the line of duty, and she responded by turning into a nymphomaniac. Though she says she’s over that phase of her life, she does introduce herself to Pat by offering to sleep with him. Intrigued as he is, Pat’s still fixated on his wife—who clearly wants nothing to do with the guy.
At some point, Tiffany talks Pat into being her partner in an amateur ballroom dance competition. Here, the film takes another unexpected turn, becoming a root-for-the-underdog “Dancing With the Stars”-influenced sports movie. It isn’t until the final moments, in fact, that Silver Linings Playbook settles on its ultimate tone—that of a traditional rom-com that brings Pat and Tiffany together in a climactic kiss-and-make-up. Turns out all crazy people need is another crazy person to fall in love with.
Schizophrenic as it is, Silver Linings Playbook is an admirable, well-crafted film. The cast has palpable chemistry. Cooper is maturing as an actor, and this is one of his most adult roles (sorry, Hangover, Part II and A-Team). Lawrence is always a marvel to watch on screen, and she’s just incredible here. Her Tiffany veers from bluntly carnal to self-loathing to hopeful in the blink of an eye. De Niro could do this kind of role in his sleep, but he manages to eke out some wonderfully sentimental moments nonetheless. Russell’s script adaptation has some very smart writing and well-constructed jokes to savor. But there’s also a faint laziness to the enterprise. Art-house-cinema-inspired dysfunctional family dramedy trappings aside, Silver Linings Playbook aspires to some awfully rote inspiration and a lot of highly conventional romance. For a film that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going moment to moment, it’s surprisingly easy to guess where it’s all going to end up. Call me crazy, but Silver Linings Playbook is another film I admired but couldn’t bring myself to love.