Mining subtle comic nuance from mental illness requires a deft touch, especially when the protagonist is the one afflicted. Played too large, and the film falls into farce. Played too inconsistently, and the illness becomes just another plot device (and one that too often disappears when it’s no longer convenient). There’s a reason that films featuring serious mental illness are overwhelmingly dramas. (For as anathema as it might be to comedy, mental illness has long been Oscar gold.)
Faced with such a challenge, David O. Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook, was not daunted. Why should he be? This is the same man who managed to mine comedic gold from a feature-length exploration of existential angst and its possible remedies in 2004’s I Heart Huckabees. He does the same in Silver Linings Playbook, using those same not-so-secret ingredients that served him so well in his Huckabees―a top-notch cast, dancing dialogue and a heaping helping of earnestness.
Adapted by Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name (with a screenplay by Russell), Silver Linings Playbook begins with the release of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) from a mental institution (of sorts) into the parental custody (of sorts) of his loving mother (Jacki Weaver) and Philadelphia Eagles diehard father (Robert De Niro). Pat is determined to rebuild the life he lost following a rather traumatic encounter between him, his wife and her lover. (In fairness, most of the physical trauma was reserved for the lover.) The road to that particular recovery starts off pretty bumpy, but hey, you try to reconcile multiple restraining orders and an unmedicated bi-polar condition while pursuing an ambitious self-improvement regimen without encountering a few setbacks. Not long after his return home, Solitano meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an emotionally raw woman still reeling from recent widowhood. Both Pat and Tiffany are exposed wires, though in the course of the movie, Russell suggests that the only real difference between them and and their friends and family lie in the amount of insulation in place. This is especially true in the case of De Niro’s volatile Pat Sr. and in the repressive relationship of Pat Jr.’s friends, Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles).
As much as Russell’s film has going for it, the peculiar alchemy of Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t work without an excess of both charisma and chemistry in its leads. Though Cooper has received plenty of Hollywood “hunk” coverage, his turn as Solitano is revelatory for its sheer charm and appeal. We’re talking a Category 4 Clooney here.
Similarly, though Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone established her dramatic acting chops, and the Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class franchises her action star potential, Silver Linings Playbook adds romantic lead to the résumé. It’s difficult to think of another young actress so ideally positioned to do whatever she damn well pleases in the coming years.
With leads as winning as Cooper and Lawrence, and Russell’s signature mix of clever and sincere dialogue, the hook is set. Every single detail doesn’t gel—Chris Tucker’s role as Danny, Pat Jr’s escape-prone friend from the treatment facility, seems a bit extraneous—but it doesn’t need to. By the end of the dance competition finale (yeah, there’s that), the audience, actors and director are on exactly the same page—and it’s Russell’s playbook.
Director: David O. Russell
Writer: David O. Russell (screenplay); Matthew Quick (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, John Ortiz
Release Date: Oct. 21, 2012