David O. Russell doesn’t make the usual kind of movies. He mixes genres, twists things in upon themselves and looks at them from angles no one else does. With Silver Linings Playbook, he takes the romantic dramedy and a couple with mental health issues and mixes them until something fresh and original bubbles up.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) is newly sprung from a mental hospital, courtesy of his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom). His stay in the hospital was a result of discovering his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee) in the shower with another man – and then nearly beating him to death. As a result, he was diagnosed as bipolar – though he also clearly has some anger management issues.
Now he’s living at home with mom and dad, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) and making their life a little more exciting (when he finishes a Hemingway novel at four in the morning, he bursts into his parents’ room to vent his frustration…).
Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young widow whose husband’s death spun her into a deep depression and her efforts to cope included sleeping with everyone in her workplace – which resulted in her getting fired.
The two meet at a disastrous dinner at the home of Pat’s best friend, Ronnie (John Oritz) and his wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles). Tiffany gets Pat to walk her home (she lives in the guesthouse/former garage behind her parents’ house) and invites him to sleep with her.
Pat has it in his mind that he’s getting his act together to impress Nikki enough to get her to lift the restraining order and take him back. Tiffany offers to sneak a letter to Nikki if Pat will be her partner in a dance competition.
Within this framework, Silver Linings Playbook hits most of the expected beats of a romantic comedy – the met cute; the friendship and attendant problems; the worried friends and parents; the big payoff – but because of the nature of the couple, each with their medical/mental health issues, none of those beats is reached in the expected manner.
Weaver is as good here as she was in Animal Kingdom (for which she earned an Oscar® nomination). As the worried mother who has more faith in her son than thinks is prudent she is all hustle and bustle. DeNiro’s Pat Sr. is more hesitant and slower to accept – his son’s manic moments certainly don’t help – and the sports book he’s running since he lost his job certainly doesn’t help.
In a surprising role, Chris Tucker plays Pat’s pal from the hospital, Danny – a motor-mouthed patient who keeps trying ploys to get out before he should. The surprise isn’t that Tucker is playing another motor-mouthed character; it’s that he’s not shrill and annoying. With Russell’s guidance, Tucker makes Danny genuinely likable because he keeps his desperation under just enough control for it not to be grating.
DeNiro is better here than he’s been in years. It may be fun to see him chew scenery in Z-grade horror flicks, but here, Russell offers him a role with some serious range and he nails it.
Anupam Kher is excellent as Pat’s therapist, Dr. Cliff Patel. Patel tested Pat in more ways than one, but they have a surprising connection when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles – which also plays into Pat Sr.’s bookmaking in a unique way.
All of which works to give a solid grounding to the film and allows Cooper and Lawrence to explore the levels of their characters’ problems with an unexpected degree of empathy. Pat and Tiffany are damaged, but they’re both right upfront about it – as in the sequence where they compare the various meds they’ve been on in the past.
While we’ve seen Lawrence earn accolades for her chops, Cooper has never really shown he can carry a movie and win an audience (The Words was awful; Limitless was brilliant but mostly unseen). Here, he shows what he can do – and it’s a lot! Also, the two have incredible chemistry – sparks fly long before they finally get to take part in the dance competition.
Russell, who also wrote the script (based on a novel by Matthew Quick), takes the romantic dramedy form and character beats and knocks them a bit askew: the meet cute is dark and Pat and tiffany’s relationship veers in unexpected directions. Things don’t quite happen when we expect them, nor do they unfold in a predictable way. This is a film where you can hear music by Led Zeppelin, The Dave Brubeck Quartet (fittingly playing Unsquare Dance) and Johnny Mathis and it doesn’t feel odd or jarring; it feels absolutely right.
Silver Linings Playbook is also probably the most playful movie Russell has ever made (and this is the guy who made Three Kings and the vastly underrated I Heart Huckabees). By combining its darker elements with that playfulness – and by treating mental illness with unwavering respect – Russell has made a film that will undoubtedly garner serious awards attention. Even better, by finding the truth in his characters and their lives, he’s produced a film that is entertaining as hell.
Final Grade: A+