Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Written & Directed by David O. Russell
Pat Solitano’s mom picks him up from a mental hospital in Baltimore, despite the doctors saying he’s not ready yet. Eight months earlier, Pat came home to find his wife in the shower with a co-worker which sent Pat into a frenzy. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but believes he doesn’t need meds or a psychiatrist; Pat requires positive thinking. His dad, Pat Sr. shows all the signs of OCD and likely has some undiagnosed issues himself, and he thinks the time he devoted to the elder sibling is what led to his younger son becoming so volatile. Through an acquaintance, Pat meets Tiffany, a widow who has very similar challenges with social cues as Pat does. The duo verbally spars, and there is the spark of an attraction, but Pat is convinced he can get his wife back if he stays on his path of self-improvement. Tiffany sees his wife regularly and promises she’ll deliver a letter to her if Pat pledges to be her dance partner in an upcoming competition. This was an event her late husband would never do with her, and it has become Tiffany’s primary focus. Pat hesitantly agrees with hopes he’ll end up reunited with his former bride.
Directed David O. Russell was drawn to the novel this film was based on because his son has been diagnosed with bipolar and OCD. Because the source material is so sensitive and close to his heart, Russell rewrote the script twenty times over the course of five years to get all the emotional beats just right. The result is a movie that feels like a piece of classic cinema, a storyline that harkens back to the 1930s or 40s. Look at the bare bones of the plot: A man is trying to get his ex-wife to fall in love with him again. One of her friends makes a deal to help him do that if he becomes her partner in a dance competition. Over the course of their months of practice, they end up falling in love with each other but are unwilling to admit it. What’s so smart is how this very familiar plot with the DNA of classic Hollywood screwball comedy woven throughout it, becomes something bigger when an examination of mental health is added to the picture.
Robert DeNiro takes a very interesting turn in his role as Pat Sr, never becoming a parody of himself but still the familiar the actor we all know. He’s a broken man, but not tragic, just stumbling in life and at a crossroads about the choices he’s made about Pat Jr. When the younger Pat arrives home one of the first things we see is his senior photo, framed but has fallen off the wall, sitting on a table for who knows how long. His older brother’s picture is still entirely in place. Pat Jr is out of place in this family; they don’t know where to put him or what to do with him. From our protagonist’s point of view, we quickly see that his parents have settled into a strange arrangement where Pat Sr’s superstitions about the Philadelphia Eagles are catered to. Pat Sr has also taken up work as a bookie and allows his OCD and paranoia to affect how he lays out bets.
Jennifer Lawrence has always been an actress I can’t pin my feelings down about, but in here she completely shines. This character, this role is the sort of thing Lawrence is built for; she understands the nuance and details of Tiffany and makes her a fully realized, slightly larger than life character. She exudes confidence when the situations become tense but also reveals a vulnerability when life forces her to face truths she would instead continue ignoring. She was only 22 when she filmed Silver Linings Playbook, but you would never guess it. She carries her weight in scenes with Bradley Cooper and DeNiro, never missing a beat.
Framing all of this is a dynamic energy Russell brings to the movie. The story begins pretty standard with the sort of family dysfunction and the “man getting back on his feet” story beats you would expect. However, once Tiffany comes into the picture everything changes and the camera takes on greater energy. There are surprising moments like when Ray Jr mentions DeSean Jackson to his psychiatrist, Dr. Patel whose demeanor changes and suddenly brings more depth to this side character than you would expect in a movie like this. Russell has always had a knack for painting out his supporting actors with great detail, looking back at The Fighter and American Hustle. It’s not a masterful as The Coen Brothers, but it makes Russell’s worlds feel real and populated by complex humans.
I avoided Silver Linings Playbook when it first came out because of the awards season hype built up around the movie. So often the films that get that level of attention fail to be artistically complex, but I shouldn’t have doubted Russell. He’s the director of one of my favorite films from the 00s, I Heart Huckabees, and it’s nice to see how he’s taken that energy and passion from his independent film work and brought into films that are getting full releases in theaters across the world. He makes movies now that have deep roots in the classic stories of Hollywood but are infused with his unique style and aesthetics.