Normally, I balk when I’m confronted with film characters who are mentally ill, have odd neurological ticks or are addicted to some sort of chemical. Partly, this is because I spend so much time in the real world with such people, and the fictional versions are rarely convincing.
For every virtuoso performance like Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged drifter in The Master, there are a dozen performances like Denzel Washington’s preposterous caricature of an alcoholic in Flight.
When I read that Silver Linings Playbook was about two psychologically troubled people, I was initially concerned, and I wasn’t encouraged when the first few scenes of the film took place in a mental hospital.
But shortly after Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is discharged by his extremely concerned mother (Jacki Weaver) and I watched them and Pat’s obsessive-compulsive father (Robert De Niro) communicate, or fail to, as a family, I saw that director David O. Russell was going for authenticity, not parody, and those worries dissipated.
And when Pat is set up with a similarly distressed Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), and they start comparing their psychopharmaceutical experiences and debating who is more screwed up, the worries evaporated.
This is a movie about people and relationships, about love and self-forgiveness, about functioning within dysfunction; it is not a movie about illness. And it’s among the best films I’ve seen this year.
In the mental hospital, Pat was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder; he was sent there in a plea bargain after he nearly beat to death the man his wife Nikki was having an affair with. Pat can become deluded and violent when stressed, but the drugs that keep him leveled out irritate him, making his world fuzzy and his body bloated.
Pat wants to be fit and trim for Nikki, who he thinks will want him back. He spends his free time reading the books Nikki has been teaching her high school English class and working out, running through the neighborhood wearing a plastic garbage bag to encourage sweating.
Tiffany, meanwhile, is a young widow and chronically depressed. After her husband was killed, she acted out by having sex with 11 men and women in her office. She tries to protect herself with dyed dark brown hair, black fingernails, and a nearly constant sneer, but she is holding it together only slightly better than Pat is.
Initially, Pat hangs out with Tiffany because she promises to pass along a letter to Nikki, who he is prevented from contacting because of a restraining order. In return, he agrees to be Tiffany’s dance partner.
Not surprisingly, their friendship intensifies. Meanwhile, Pat’s family is struggling financially and psychologically, particularly because of Pat and his father’s awkward relationship.
Rounding out the menagerie of wounded people are Pat’s friends Ronnie (John Ortiz), married to Nikki’s best friend, Tiffany’s sister and Danny (a nicely subdued Chris Tucker), who Pat met in the hospital and who is constantly trying to escape.
His follow up to The Fighter, which I assumed would be his masterpiece, Silver Linings Playbook is perhaps Russell’s best movie. Like The Fighter, he has taken a standard genre structure – the sports film before, now the romantic comedy – and lifted it to high art with beautifully written, deeply nuanced characters and actors directed to their greatest performances.
Cooper has never indicated he was capable of such a dangerously raw performance, and Jennifer Lawrence, who had earned such a reputation, has surpassed the greatness of Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Russell, Cooper, De Niro and Weaver will likely all be nominated for Oscars, but Lawrence could actually win.
Silver Linings Playbook
Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro
At your local multiplex