Amongst all of the awards buzz and critical acclaim that greeted The Fighter back at the tail end of 2010, there seemed to be one overriding question: will success spoil David O Russell?
The Fighter not only gave the writer-director his biggest box office success to date (edging out his previous biggest hit, Three Kings, in gross, and eclipsing it in profits), but it gave him his first bona fide awards contender, netting two Academy Awards for acting and across-the-board nominations from gong-givers on both sides of the Atlantic.
But what next? On the surface, Silver Linings Playbook, an adaptation of the Matthew Quick novel, looks to be a step towards the mainstream for Russell, now reformed by Academy recognition and willing to come in from the artistic cold. For one, it’s a romantic comedy – and what’s more, it’s not the slightest bit embarrassed by this fact.
This is the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is released from a mental hospital eight months after finding his wife with another man. After moving back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), he tries to piece his life back together, and obsessively plans to win his wife back, treating the restraining order that prevents him from being within 100 yards of her as simply an obstacle that needs to be overcome. But when Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who is friends with his estranged wife, offers to help him in his quest, things start to look up.
As with The Fighter, SIlver Linings Playbook doesn’t radically alter the conventions of its genre, but Russell’s up-close, intimate shooting style and quick-witted dialogue immediately set the film apart from the pack. And while it is on the one hand a film about finding love in the least likely of places – yes, that old chestnut again – it is also a character study, looking at varying forms of either diagnosed or unchecked psychological issues.
Pat’s bipolar psychology informs the pacing of the film, which is by turns full of careening, manic energy, then subdued and melancholic. He confesses that he doesn’t have a filter when he talks, and he often blunders into taboo subjects, but no one in the film is without their own tic, trauma or emotional trigger.
From Tiffany’s bereavement and emotional baggage to Pat’s dad Pat Sr’s obsessive compulsive disorder, the film paints a very eccentric ensemble. The central pair are particularly strong, with Lawrence adding yet another string to her post-Hunger Games bow, but the real revelation might be De Niro’s turn as the ageing father who treats his family life with similarly grim seriousness to his American football fanaticism.
After years of bending older roles to fit his ego and reputation, De Niro here plays an actual old man. There’s still a bit of fire in the old belly, but there’s an integral weakness in his reliance on superstitions – the obsessive rubbing of a handkerchief, the meticulous placement of TV remotes – that holds a mirror up to the younger characters’ own troubles. At least they know they’re off their rocker; Pat Sr is a prisoner of his own denial.
If anything, the film’s earnest commitment to its central relationship makes the final act into something of a foregone conclusion, with love winning out over all complications, but Russell knows that there is an essential, universal, satisfying quality to such a romantic arc. Indeed, the rom-com has been a common target of late, with many smug screenwriters and stylish directors setting their sights on the genre and consciously taking it to task for decades of conventional fluff.
But all that the likes of Crazy Stupid Love, 500 Days Of Summer and Friends With Benefits seem to do is inject self-awareness into the mix, as if cine-literacy, gimmicky plotting and pop culture references will save the rom-com from itself.
In welcome contrast to its contemporaries, Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t attempt to rewrite the rulebook. In Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone re-enact the famous lift from Dirty Dancing, while here Lawrence and Cooper are given a dance routine of their very own. And while it may not become iconic in its own right, it is a fitting high point for this uncommon sort of relationship.
Silver Linings Playbook offers something fresh without doing anything as destructive as breaking the mould. Within its genre boundaries, it creates room for impressively-drawn characters, some great performances, and an intelligent portrayal of the eccentricities of human life.
It might not get – or perhaps warrant – the acclaim that greeted The Fighter, but Russell has provided us with a smart, satisfying antidote to the anti-rom-com. I think it’s safe to say success suits him pretty well.
Silver Linings Playbook is out in UK cinemas now.
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