Drawing comparisons between a David O. Russell film and the film of another, more boilerplate Oscar-season director is kind of like comparing the X Games to the Olympics, the latter more prepared to sweep us up in its comforting and controlled familiarity, the former astonishing with its mercurial brilliance. This is not a compliment or critique, but a comment on the thrilling messiness David O. Russell brings as a storyteller. Silver Linings Playbook–Russell’s follow up to the Academy-nominated The Fighter–thrives in this mess, bringing its sundry characters together in a collection of manic fits and starts–appropriate for a film so preoccupied with mental health issues. Playbook is a film with the heart of a romantic comedy and the head of a black comedy, and of this collision is born a visceral, cerebral story about a family with a lot to fix.
When Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) ends his eight-month tenure in a Baltimore mental health facility and returns home to stay with his parents in a Philadelphia suburb, his first move is to tear through the reading list of his estranged wife Nikki’s (Brea Bee) 8th English class. Bipolar, disinterested in taking medication, and effectively deluding himself, Pat has mapped out a plan to win Nikki back–after nearly killing the man she was cheating on him with–and it includes a dedicated regimen of self-improvement and sensitivity training. In reality, Pat is a mess, and his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores Solitano (Jacki Weaver), find themselves caught up in his frenzied whirlwind. At a dinner with friends, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is dealing with her own demons after the sudden death of her husband. Tiffany is intriguingly eccentric–at least insofar as she is one of the few people Pat can truly relate to–and the pair form a bond, despite the innumerable hurdles their respective issues present.
These issues serve as the axle of Silver Linings Playbook, as this is fundamentally a film about the complexity of mental illness. Russell’s chopped and screwed introduction to the character of Pat Solitano makes this abundantly clear in the film’s opening moments, gapping the distance between his Baltimore mental health facility and his parents Philadelphia home with a collection of largely endearing and wholly enigmatic moments. As we come to understand the dynamic within this less-than-functional family, Bradley Cooper reveals a powerful grasp of, at the very least, bi-polar characteristics, building a character who feels terribly genuine in his affliction. Pat creates a delightful conflict for audiences, as his instability sits at the root of his charm, but also his maddening single-mindedness. It is as fully drawn a character as we’ve seen all year.
Yet what really brings Russell’s screenplay home is the complexity of his secondary characters. Danny (Chris Tucker), a friend from Pat’s Baltimore days, is kooky and manic, veering occasionally towards a punchline before Russell brings him back into full view. Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) from Philly is ostensibly the antithesis, with a beautiful wife and daughter and an iPod dock in every room of his handsome Colonial. But the burden of being a provider weighs on him heavily, and Pat becomes his mental health confessor. Pat’s father presents the film’s most intriguing view of mental instability, with a conspicuous OCD that has thrived for years, and a view of the world often decided by the nebulous laws of kismet. While Pat’s relationship with Tiffany occupies the film’s foreground, the father/son story is just as important. This is surely a product of the characters and their complexity, but it doesn’t have the same legs without the indelible performance of Robert De Niro. At the risk of hyperbole, this is a return to form for De Niro, whose project choices as a gray-hair don’t always indicate an actor looking for his next Oscar. A scene towards the film’s middle finds Pat Sr. sitting on his son’s bed in the wee hours, asking him–begging him, really–to renew their Sunday afternoon viewings of Eagles games, a time when Pat Sr. feels the two men can truly and honestly speak to one another. For any father or son that has glimpsed the emotional chasm fathers and sons so often must face, this scene is awfully powerful, imbuing the relationship with a startling degree of veracity.
This is ultimately what makes Silver Linings Playbook such a fantastic film–the authenticity and palpability of this family going through a desperately hard time in their collective lives. David O. Russell has formed (from the blueprints laid out in the Matthew Quick-penned novel) a medley of fully articulated characters, whose issues, while not realistically curable, can be managed if they are managed in the refuge of family. And it’s not an immaculate film, as Russell is the kind of director more inclined to throw things at the wall and see what sticks than carve away to perfection. It’s not an approach we’re used to seeing, and suggests an abandon that leaves the director and his projects more open to failure. Which is mostly irrelevant, as Silver Linings is the director’s best work to date. It’s a film that breathes and grows and gets under your skin in a wonderful way, rendering for its audience the gratifying joy of earned success.