David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a delightful film about rampant dysfunction, desperation, obsession, isolation, hope, and the healing power of love. The writer/director taps into deep recesses of darkness, dealing with such touchy subjects as mental illness, only to make us see the light. Unabashedly positive, this small, intimate movie has a big heart as well as brains, making you think even as you’re overcome by its insanity and finally give in to its life-affirming, uplifting message.
Adapted by Russell from Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, Silver Linings makes us buy into the philosophy of its title and assures us that “everything is under control,” as the characters keep repeating with varying degrees of faith.
At the beginning of the movie, Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released after an eight-month stint in a Baltimore mental institution, and he feels ready to take on the world. The world might not be ready. Determined to move ever onward and upward (he’s fond of saying “Excelsior” as an all-appeasing mantra), Pat returns to his parents’ Pennsylvania home and works on getting his life together. His mother, Dolores (Jackie Weaver), smiles and tells him it’s all okay even if her teeth may clench and her eyes water. Pat Sr.(Robert De Niro), a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic, bookie, and gambler, whose many superstitions feed obsessive-compulsive tendencies, reminds us the apple doesn’t always fall too far from the tree.
A confident, upbeat, unstable young man suffering from bipolar disorder, Pat’s expectations are widely unrealistic. He is determined to get back his job as a high school teacher, his house and wife Nikki (Brea Bee). The fact that she has filed a restraining order against him (for the violent outburst that landed him in the loony bin in the first place) is, in Pat’s mind, only a minor impediment.
Having dinner at his friend Ronnie’s (a warm John Ortiz) house, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a funny, foulmouthed, vibrant, volatile young widow with problems of her own. A self-proclaimed “crazy slut with a dead husband,” Tiffany deals with falling in and out of depression by falling in and out of bed with men—and some women, as a titillatingly hilarious conversation demonstrates later on. Pat and Tiffany lack anything resembling a verbal filter and bond through their socially disastrous candor. They eat, discuss medication history, and hit it off. She offers him sex; he insists he’s faithful to his faithless wife. A tentative friendship forms, based on the exchange of favors: she offers to get a letter to Nikki from him; he agrees to become her partner in a dance competition.
Pat jogs around the neighborhood in a large garbage bag meant to help burn off calories, but besides offering a running sight gag, no pun intended, the getup completely conveys the character’s inner state. He is protected, shut off from the world, and the only scenes when the cover comes off, in Tiffany’s garage-cum-dance studio, are incidentally also the moments he opens up. Whereas in most romantic comedies we get two perfect people that experience conflict together and overcome it, Pat and Tiffany are troubled, deeply damaged and flawed individuals whose lives are filled with conflict and find comfort in each other.
These complex characters are taken on with feeling and simplicity. Pat’s eyes dart as Tiffany’s narrow and we know that depths of hurt, love, and emotion are deftly concealed under the surface. As the abrasive young woman whose tough exterior masks an underlying vulnerability, Jennifer Lawrence is somehow sweeter and softer than she was in her Academy-Award nominated role for Winter’s Bone, but just as good. Cooper is incredible as a wounded, lost soul on its way to being found. Nothing in the actor’s career so far could have prepared us for this brilliant performance; his verbal and emotional agility are staggering. Russell’s characteristic large supporting cast is nothing short of stellar, including a hyped-up Chris Tucker that stops by Pat's every time he flees the cuckoo's nest.
In developing the relationships between characters, Russell has his actors fire off edgy one-liners at breakneck speed. The dialogue surges, ebbs, and flows with a ring of poetic realism. The lines seem not so much written by Russell as simply springing forth from the characters’ subconscious, creating a sense of spontaneity and energy that I had thought lost in modern cinema.
Basically a sex comedy without sex, Silver Linings follows the screwball conventions of the 1930s, a genre that came at a dark time in the country’s history when audiences needed an escape from harsh economic realities. The humor, then as in this movie, reflects the unpredictable human comedy of an insane world and, through its high-velocity dialogue, staccato rhythm and pacing, physical gags, plot twists and poignant resolutions, assures us we can, indeed, escape and be happy.
And Russell’s film is a plea for happiness. The world is hard enough, Pat yells in the dead of night at his parents, neighbors, and the audience after throwing Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms” out the window. All we can do is try to make it easier on ourselves and others, “work on a strategy” to get us through life, as Pat’s therapist (Anupam Kher) advises.
With his zipping, zooming camera moves and jagged, jumpy editing, the director places us in the unbalanced universe of the characters’ minds. It is far too easy to confuse Russell’s relinquishing of rules with recklessness. The film seems free and loose, but is in fact the result of its director’s superb control and confidence.
Silver Linings exists in a state of controlled chaos. The characters seethe, scream, and fight, and we’re thrillingly aware that it might just be too much to fit into a romantic comedy, but Russell closely observes the conventions of the genre only to ultimately transcend them.
A bit bipolar itself, Silver Linings swings seamlessly and spontaneously between its many highs and lows, at times exuberantly happy, at others painfully sad. Like Pat, the movie stings as well as soothes, sometimes within the same instant. The director likes, to borrow a title of one of his earlier films, flirting with disaster; he always keeps us wondering. The movie is most comfortable on the edge between control and chaos, going ever so slightly over the brink only to pull back.
While the first shot of the film shows Pat alone in a room talking to himself, in Silver Linings’ last image, he is surrounded by friends and family. He has finally made it home, and the wonderfully bumpy ride has been filled with twists and turns. Blending drama, farce, comedy, and romance, Russell’s great film perfectly captures the crazy, exhilarating feeling of falling in love, leaving you a bit dizzy and confused, but experiencing an altogether warm and fluttery sensation.