Though his new film follows some colorful characters, as can be expected by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook marks a notable downshift for the director. His career highlight remains a truly artful film on kookiness, society, consumerism and even transcendentalism: I ♥ Huckabees. His earlier films, Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, even the Clooney/Wahlberg vehicle Three Kings, all blended obsessions to twisted heights. But I ♥ Huckabees captured existentialist humor with a wry sense of wit. His last film, the Fighter, revealed a tonal change for the director, entering an earthly true story, which handed him some extraordinary characters. It’s no wonder two of its actors (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) won well-deserved supporting Oscar® awards.
Now comes Silver Linings Playbook, based on the first novel by Matthew Quick. Long before arriving in wide release this weekend, the film had received major buzz and praise during film festivals mostly for a restrained and humble performance by Bradley Cooper. He plays Pat, a man who has served time at a mental hospital trying to readjust to life outside. His character undergoes the usual idealistic sympathy set-up trope of dramatic irony in these types of movies: He finds sneaky ways to keep medication from going down his throat. At his last day in the hospital, surrounded by fellow twitchy crazies, including Chris Tucker, who reappears throughout the film almost like a phantom, providing exhilarating comic relief, Pat does not seem to accept his own mental instability. His coping mechanism outside then turns out to be a power word (Excelsior!) he learned during therapy that reminds him to find the silver lining in any negativity encountered as he stumbles to reconnect with friends and family. Pat’s main motivation, however, is to get back with his ex-wife who has a restraining order against him after a violent incident when he caught her cheating on him in the couple’s shower. It’s all a very fine line for an actor to walk, and Cooper ultimately fails to infuse the character with enough dynamism to make him memorable.
Despite the trite situations characterizing him, Pat only barely appears sympathetic. The character’s single-minded drive keeps him rather inaccessible, creating a perspective that can only seem condescending to the movie audience looking in on his life. Compared to other crazies on the big screen, Pat becomes a rather slight crazy. It makes one wonder if, by the end of this year’s Oscar® campaign season, whether Cooper can make an impact beyond the Weinstein hype-machine that has already begun pushing him. The brief opening scenes in the mental hospital beg for unfair comparisons to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which Nicholson won the Oscar® award. Then your mind may drift to other crazies cooped up in madhouses. Cooper is certainly nowhere near as interesting as either Brad Pitt or even Bruce Willis were in 12 Monkeys, a transporting mixture of madness and time travel. Pitt received an Oscar® nomination for the role that year but lost to another great crazy played by Kevin Spacey for the Usual Suspects (and, to an unofficial extent, for his role in Se7en that same year).
Those performances in mind, Cooper should only muster a shrug in comparison. Plus, in Silver Linings, he has to play against another man of great lunatics: Robert De Niro, who is indelibly linked to Travis Bickel (Taxi Driver) and, for some, Max Cady (Cape Fear). Both, once again, Oscar®-nominated roles. Playing a different type of loon, as Pat’s OCD football-fanatic father Pat Sr., you better believe De Niro has to keep it low-key in order not to steal Cooper’s thunder. But guess who plays his mother in the movie? Another Oscar® nominee for psychopath: Jacki Weaver, though in Silver Linings, she plays Dolores with frayed-nerve but grounded charm. Dolores is the one person trying to hold the family together and the only one who does not seem self-absorbed in madness.
The family dynamic in Silver Linings Playbook gives new meaning to dysfunction, as Dolores struggles to keep father and son from burning out their short fuses, seemingly walking on eggshells between the two. Her husband seems to care most about the Philadelphia Eagles winning games and treats his namesake like some good luck charm above all else. Pat Jr. meanwhile is seemingly left to suffer his bipolar disorder in isolation. It’s an inward performance above all, despite some outbursts. This is not some scene-chewing crazy, which normally attracts Academy Award recognition.
It does not help that the film’s story is also a slight affair with some muddled intentions, climaxing at a dance competition that recalls Little Miss Sunshine, except the children are adults acting like children (again, condescending and— hopefully— unrelatable to an adult audience).The film opens with too many jokes at the expense of those with mental disorders to expect the viewers to sincerely care about these characters. When Pat Sr. lays a brutal beating on his son for no reason a sane person would do it, many in the theater where I saw it seemed confused by how the humor suddenly evaporated. These characters should have the viewer’s sympathy, but it never taps into their pathos in a way that does not seem condescending. There is something sad about watching punching bags duke it out.
This clash of characters also appears in the bond Pat forms with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who is coming down from the end of an outbreak of nymphomania after her police officer husband died in the line of duty. It seems to be the talk of the neighborhood. “Yes, I’m Tommy’s whore widow,” she says when introduced to Pat at a mutual friend’s house over dinner. Tiffany is the embodiment of the Freudian notion of Eros and Thanatos, and I would dare say Lawrence gets the meatier role, channeling grieving with manic energy. Lawrence plays Tiffany with a charming straight-forward quality, a person who can give a damn what anyone thinks, as she tries to embrace life after death while still struggling with the pull and snap of the range of emotions that come after that. Her character garners more sympathy, and her portrayal deserves more recognition during award season consideration than Cooper.
Meanwhile, Pat seems obsessed to get back together with his ex-wife. Despite the jogs through the neighborhood Tiffany invites herself to with Pat, and Pat’s decision to join her in a dance competition if she assist in a ploy to get him in touch with his ex, Pat remains single-minded in his desire to make his ex-marriage work. There is a charming chemistry between the two lost lead characters, in the end, as you await the inevitable. But along with that, the film illustrates the phantoms we fall for within the people who we think we know. It’s a difficult thing to portray with humor, and often in Silver Linings that notion becomes lost in the mix of an attempt to make it all so wacky. So, enjoy the ride into a love founded upon shared madness. Some in the audience may feel better for themselves, others will wonder if there is any hope for these people who seem in a consistent state of denial, up to the film’s overly pat, trite conclusion.