Mental illness is hard. Love and family can be harder. At least that is what David O. Russell suggests in his latest blending of familial turmoil and oddball comedy, Silver Linings Playbook.
Dramedy is not entirely new territory for Russell. The controversial director wickedly traversed the tightrope of imprudent humor and personality disorder before in I Heart Huckabees. He also studied a family courting disaster in the 2010 Academy Award nominated The Fighter. However, his return to these themes in Silver Linings remarkably makes for a more nuanced and emotionally fulfilling experience, as well as one of the best movies you will see this year.
The premise of the film is an uncomplicated one; Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from the mental hospital he was committed to for eight months. Recovering from an anger management incident worthy of Bruce Banner, Pat has lost his job, his house and most likely his marriage when he gets out and is forced to move back home with his parents. Life has dealt him a crummy hand and he is desperately searching for a silver lining to his bipolar disorder. It is on that quest that he crosses paths with Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a very young widow with her own coping issues, who connects with Pat by kvetching about almost all brands of anxiety medication a pharmacy could carry. The only things stopping them from helping each other are their own mental hang-ups. Well, that and the Philadelphia Eagles’ football schedule.
Every scene Pat and Tiffany share in the movie is electrifying, due in large part to the authentically slow boiling chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence. This is a not a meet-cute story. Both characters have been extremely traumatized by the surprising meanness of life. Cooper’s melancholic performance as a man adrift is the most affecting thing he has ever done onscreen. Pat is tragic in the way he deludes himself into thinking his separated wife, who obtained a restraining order against him, will come back to him someday. But he can also be manically hilarious when he takes umbrage with Ernest Hemingway for ending his novel, A Farewell to Arms, on a dry, cynical note. During one scene, he bursts into his parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night to express true fury with Ernest for writing such a downer and even more anger at his estranged wife for teaching the book in her classroom.
For a movie about second chances, Lawrence positions herself for her own in a role that is sure to land her a second Oscar nod. The actress, who has become an international archery icon over the last year, reminds audiences why she got her first nomination at age 19 (for her performance in Winter’s Bone). Tiffany is a woman who took ownership of several mental episodes following her husband’s death. Sure, she slept with nearly every man and a few women in her office, costing her the job, but screw you if you judge her! She can call herself, “A crazy slut with a dead husband,” but woe unto the man who agrees with that self-description.
The third act of the film becomes about our heroes channeling their frustrations and disappointments with life into a wonderfully mediocre dance routine for a local competition. There may be some who accuse the movie of relying on conventionality in its plotting, however the major strength of the movie is anything but conventional. Silver Lining Playbook is a love story, but it is the love story for its era. Russell does not see his romance through the lens of wish fulfillment, but rather in a dance mirror reflecting our own culture’s current reality. There is nothing for the viewer to envy about Pat or Tiffany’s current predicaments. Like so many Millennials in this post-recession economy, Pat is an adult who cannot find his way in the world. He sleeps in his childhood bed and must be micromanaged by worried parents who only want to help. Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mother, Dolores, is terrific at playing the doting mother who loves her son but cannot hide the disappointment that traces the corners of her eyes. And Robert De Niro’s performance as Pat Sr. is the best thing he has done in years. Pat the First is not doing a whole lot better than Junior is at the start of the film. The father has been laid off from his blue-collar job after decades of service, even losing his pension. To make ends meet, he has become a part-time bookie and is trying to save up enough money to start a restaurant. Unfortunately, his new profession is hazardous for such a devout Eagles fan suffering from his own personality tics. Watching their team play in the living room on Sunday is more of a superstitious ritual than entertainment for this family.
Tiffany likewise lives with her parents, albeit in a converted garage separate from the family home itself. She is unemployed and cannot have company over without the neighbors raising their eyebrows and disapproving frowns from her parents. Whenever anything goes wrong in either family, both Pat and Tiffany are immediately the culprits. Their misery is only exasperated further by the success of both characters’ older siblings.
While most people’s problems are not as extreme as the movie’s protagonists, it should not be hard for most audiences to relate to those on the margins. These are all-American families who are struggling just to keep their heads above water. In 2012, too many Americans who were promised the happily ever after and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow can relate to the sense of frustration and incredulity that comes with diminished expectations. It is what makes this film so meaningful. The people afraid that life left them behind are lifting themselves up, dusting themselves off and cha-cha-ing forwards, assured that that silver lining is out there. Such earnest hopefulness is something we can all aspire to. It’s what makes this movie so satisfying and one of the optimistic bright spots in theatres this year.