The Weinstein Company
A REVIEW BY
I should have known what I was getting into when I saw the trailer for Silver Linings Playbook a few months ago: two abnormally attractive people in pursuit of one another, a dance competition subplot, and Chris Tucker. But after reading all the glowing reviews and watching the first hour or so of the film, I believed that Hollywood’s brilliantly banal marketing strategy had worked once again: When there’s a subtle, handcrafted, and heartfelt film to be sold, advertise low to broaden the base, and what would have once been an indie darling is now a bona fide hit (see Little Miss Sunshine). Heck, even the Friday and Rush Hour star struck a chord with me. But as the story progressed, writer-director David O. Russell’s film lost its subtle integrity, relying on tried and true formulas for an ultimately disappointing conclusion.
Silver Linings is the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man with an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder whose delusions and (exogenously) unfortunate life wind him up in a state mental hospital. When his court-mandated stay ends, he returns to the real-but-not-quite-real world of his parents’ home, where he rekindles destructive relationships with his overbearing parents, hoity-toity brother, and well-meaning friends. As he enacts his quixotic plan to win back his estranged wife, Pat sparks a friendship with Tiffany, the widowed sister-in-law of a friend, played by a convincingly unstable (and incredibly young) Jennifer Lawrence. That friendship—the source of much audience seat-squirming—promises to be of one of the most disastrous relationships recorded on film. Though they can bond over their torrid histories with medication, Pat’s manic, frank nature clashes with Tiffany’s brooding, frank nature in painfully hilarious ways—Pat pries about Tiffany’s dead husband, while Tiffany insists that Pat’s wife is as good as dead to him.
Though this film centers itself around two mentally disturbed people, like many great treatments of the subject of insanity (12 Monkeys, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), it is as much a critique of the “sane” supporting characters as it is of Pat and Tiffany. Pat Senior—played by Robert De Niro in his amazing, subtly unsubtle De Niro style—is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, exhibiting tendencies of obsessive-compulsive disorder with an insanity that rivals that of his son. Pat’s friend Ron is trapped in a loveless marriage, in which a power struggle with his wife has long since become the status quo. The film treads carefully on the uncertain ground that is mental illness—Silver Linings brings to light those often hilarious, always heartbreaking moments of insanity that define all of us (though they certainly define some more than others).
On many levels, this film is a return to form for Russell (Amherst class of ’81) whose most recent film, The Fighter, also explored small-town family drama, mental illness/general fucked-up-ness, and imperfect love. He does all this with his signature style of dynamic, handheld camera movement (also seen in The Fighter) that seems to say to the audience, “Get a load of this! Let’s be clear: This is awful. But what brilliant destruction!”
So far, so good—mature yet lighthearted treatment of the subject matter with laughs and tears aplenty. But toward the end of the second act, what seemed like a world grounded in the imperfect, hyper-emotive reality of The Fighter shifts into a world governed by the Laws of Romantic Comedy. Enter a cheesy and unrealistic ultimatum and the subversion of early plot developments to accommodate later plot developments, followed by a saccharine ending.
An example: Though the film is very much grounded in Pat’s reality and we see hints of imagined dialogue that reveal his propensity for delusion, it is very clear what is real and what is imagined. In one of these manic daydreams, Dr. Patel, Pat’s no-nonsense therapist, enthusiastically supports his poor decision to wear a football jersey to a nice dinner. Later we find out that Dr. Patel is actually a huge Eagles fan and his presence at the climacteric football game actually sets in motion some major plot mechanisms. This moment satisfies two Laws of Romantic Comedy: the charming (read: annoying) coincidence and the taciturn character who we discover late in the film is really goofy and fun-loving (!). It also compels the viewer to abandon her understanding of Pat’s psyche for a tiny comedic payoff. Something rubbed me the wrong way about Dr. Patel and his actions at the football game and thereafter. It just didn’t jive with the tone of his character or the movie.
This adherence to absurd romantic comedy regularities highlights a missed opportunity on Russell’s part as the screenwriter. In the novel by Matthew Quick on which Silver Linings is based, Pat’s aggressive positivity stems from his belief that his life is a movie, destined to have a “silver lining” that will lead to a happy ending. This notion of life-as-film isn’t found in Russell’s telling; if it were, the lapse into the saccharine tropes of the rom-com would reflect Pat’s triumph in finding the silver lining. It would also present an opportunity for Russell to comment on and play with these tropes and at least acknowledge their silliness.
The plot’s transition from artful to ham-fisted is disappointing because the film had heart and soul, and was damn funny without having to scrape the bottom of the barrel for material. Cooper, De Niro, and Lawrence’s energy and emotionality match that of Russell’s dialogue and camerawork. Why not fuel the emotional fire with more reality to make things interesting?
Early on in the film, Pat reads A Farewell to Arms as part of his plan to get back with his wife. (If he reads the books she teaches her high school students, he’ll demonstrate tenacity and a desire to understand her, and she’ll lift her restraining order against him.) He is left unsatisfied with the book’s less-than-cheery ending and chucks it through the glass of his bedroom window. After a brutal and painful war, he thinks, wouldn’t it be enough to just let Catherine and Henry be happy together? Maybe Silver Linings is an exercise in Pat’s painfully optimistic worldview: We all need to hope that our experiences with harsh reality will lead us to true happiness, with or without artistic integrity. I just pray that true happiness doesn’t have to involve Chris Tucker.