David O. Russell was seemingly born to make movies about the modern American male. As codified in Three Kings, The Fighter, and now Silver Linings Playbook, an American man is intense, uncompromising, and without a filter. He is always underestimated. He is driven to conquer. In search of Kuwaiti gold, championship belts, or the satisfaction of winning a high stakes gambit, an American man never rests. To rest is to die. Patrick Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is unquestionably an American man. Told by his wife that he needs to lose weight, he dons a hoodie and a garbage bag and sprints through the neighborhood. Wishing to reconnect with her, he reads every book she assigns to her high school students. Told by doctors, friends, relatives, and the police that he can’t see his wife again, his mind races; he has to see her—the only question is how?
Pat has recently been diagnosed as bipolar. As Silver Linings Playbook opens, his mother is signing the papers necessary for his release from a Baltimore mental institution. He was there because, upon finding his wife in the shower with another man, he nearly beat that man to death. Pat dedicates himself to overcoming his disorder, but he is unwilling to take medication, his friends and family treat him much differently than before, and his wedding song, which was playing when he found his wife in the shower with another man, is a trigger for his rage. One wonders if his release from the mental hospital was a good idea—not necessarily because it’s too soon, but because his support system isn’t exactly the world’s finest. His mother (Jacki Weaver) is nice enough, but his dad (Robert De Niro) is a case study in obsessive compulsive disorders and likely has a gambling addiction. Having taken up bookkeeping, he spends his Sundays watching Philadelphia Eagles games. He has three remote controls, all angled a certain way. He clutches and rubs his Eagles handkerchief. He intends to get his son in on his compulsion, but Pat. Jr. is always running, always reading, always trying to get his wife back.
He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widowed woman whose coping mechanism is sex. Meeting each other for the first time, they compare medications. It’s clear that there’s something between them, but Pat doesn’t see it; eyes on the prize. Until Tiffany offers to circumvent the restraining order placed against him by his wife, she’s just somebody Pat can compare his ailments to, another crazy person. Pat wants to write a letter to his wife. Tiffany wants to enter a couples dance competition, but was never able to do it with her husband. With the specter of the letter hanging over Pat’s head, Tiffany is able to blackmail him into learning a dance routine. As the Philadelphia Eagles tortuously navigate their way towards the NFC Championship game, Pat and Tiffany grow into a cohesive unit.
Silver Linings Playbook is structured like a standard romantic comedy and is replete with hang-ups, half truths, and quirky parents who just want the best for their son. The difference—really, the privilege of a David O. Russell rom-com—is not just a matter of talent: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro all have ability, and have leant it to a fair number of undeserving vehicles. Silver Linings Playbook—as is true of all of Russell’s films—not only plays on the strengths of his cast, but adapt them to suit the emotional response of the widest possible audience. Christian Bale, for example, had already bent his body into a grotesque horror-show for the purposes of The Machinist, but it was The Fighter that won him an Academy Award. Robert De Niro has been playing an aging tough guy for decades now, with the caveat that very few of those tough guys have been vulnerable. Here, De Niro’s character isn’t just suffering from his OCD and gambling problems, but from the very real possibility that he has failed his son. Though there have been bright spots here and there over the past few years, Silver Linings Playbook gives De Niro the most he’s had to work with in years, and watching him is every bit as invigorating as when he was at the peak of his power.
Of course, the bulk of Silver Linings Playbook depends on the relationship between Cooper and Lawrence working, which it does. Though Lawrence has detoured post-Winter’s Bone into the much more lucrative world of comic book and young adult novel adaptations, she remains a phenomenally talented young actress. Though her age goes mostly unremarked upon, there’s something deeply unsettling about this young widow and the way she feeds on tragedy. Unlike most romantic comedy misunderstandings, the game she plays with Pat’s unshakable desire to reunite with his wife borders on cruelty. By the time her ploy reveals itself, however, Pat’s unstable brain chemistry—convincingly played by Cooper in a number of wrenching, early scenes—is no longer the often unconquerable monster of reality, but a movie illness. With the help of his family (De Niro and Jacki Weaver are one of the more convincing screen couples of recent years), his friends (Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, and, as his therapist, Anupam Kher), and a few well-applied montages, he’ll pull through.
It’s easy to envision a darker, less comic version of Silver Linings Playbook, one that maintains the tone of its early scenes, where much about Pat is uncertain and those around him are almost queasy remembering what landed him in a mental institution. Indeed, that version exists on the cutting room floor, where De Niro is meaner and less understanding of his son’s condition, nodded at with the brief presence of Pat’s lawyer brother, who is quick to point out his successes and Pat’s failures. Instead, with its climactic dance sequence and what follows after, Silver Linings Playbook practically wills itself to be a saccharine sweet crowd-pleaser. It’s not the wrong instinct to follow, by any means; Silver Linings Playbook is an easy film to be won over by. That being said, the film also has a certain responsibility to the disorders it invokes, one it willfully ignores in its push to send the audience home grinning. Even with the film’s conscious decision to play as something nice and minor on the table, it’s one nudge too far.
Silver Linings Playbook. With Bradley Cooper (Pat Solitano Jr.), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany Maxwell), Robert De Niro (Pat Solitano Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores Solitano), Chris Tucker (Danny), Anupam Kher (Dr. Patel), John Ortiz (Ronnie), and Julia Styles (Veronica). Directed by David O. Russell and produced by Bruce Cohen and Donna Gigliotti. Screenplay by Russell, based on the novel The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick