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.
I liked the movie, but I was incredibly shocked by all the changes they made from the book. I know that is how it always goes, but MAN the book practically read like a screenplay and I was really looking forward to seeing that story on the screen. The movie could have been so much grittier.
I can see that. This is basically just a really solid romantic comedy with some real life darkness to it, but I can imagine this story being grittier.
I’d be curious to know why Russell made the changes. Maybe just to make it his own. That would be lame.
Yeah I was really confused. In the book he has a traumatic brain injury (not bipolar) from the confrontation with his wife’s dude, and those are even totally hot right now. It makes his character much more blunt and interesting, and also his disability is much more profound in the book, which I would think would make for a good watch. But what do I know!
I guess calling him bipolar instead of using the traumatic head injury thing just makes it a film officially about mental illness, which I guess I prefer. That’s more or less what connects all the characters, which is pretty important.
Maybe I need to read the book.
You should, it’s a quick read!
I will read the book based on the above exchange. I didn’t like this movie, it started out so promising and then just seemed to reach a point where they wanted bradley cooper to look at us with his bradley cooper eyes and we would all swoon. The last 30 minutes of the movie just felt like a smashed together quirky indie romcom. This movie was one of 2012’s biggest disappointments for me.
Yeah? The end really got me. [SPOILERS FOLLOW] When they got the 5 they needed and the whole family flipped out I had tears in my eyes. I can absolutely see how that moment feels pretty scripted, but I think I bought into the characters so much that I just wanted them to succeed. And Bradley Cooper and De Niro were both so good that in the end I was just happy to see them happy (or close to happy or whatever).
One of my favorites of the year. A really good look at family dynamics, relationships, and Philadelphia. Even the ending with the messed up lift in the dance provided a dark humor as well as a true moment for the characters. Whatever missteps involved in the plot were more than made up for with the performances. A real sense of community, support groups, and mental illness came through until the end. Also if one has ever lived in the Philadelphia area, this movie best captures the mindset of the city. Desean Jackson is the man. A nice touch was the Kolb jersey worn by the mom. Loved the movie, performances and the review. Keep up the good work Mr. Wertz.
I loved the Eagles stuff. It’s such a minor element, but it’s those little touches that really flesh out the characters and make them authentic. And there was something too about the Philly setting, and that sense that the people from the area are a little harder than most, which makes these hurdles that much higher for them.
Thanks for the read!
Excellent, Peter. Well done. There are some lovely sentences in here.
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Thanks for reading!
You may very well be the first person to read my blog on an iPad.