Directed by David O. Russell. Screenplay by David O. Russell; based upon the novel by Matthew Quick. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Donna Gigliotti, Jonathan Gordon. Music by Danny Elfman. Photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi. Edited by Jay Cassidy. Production designed by Judy Becker. Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles.
Silver Linings Playbook tackles several topics: sports, family, love, and even—surprisingly—dance. We’ve seen each of those movies hundreds of times, and so you wouldn’t expect that mixing them would create something good. But it does.
The story, which is about two bipolar cases who fall in love but have their own demons standing in the way, sounds twee and trite, but it is acted, written and directed with such skill that what was old (very old) becomes new again. Let’s be clear: the film doesn’t do anything groundbreaking at all, but it is dependable, good-hearted, slam-dunk Thanksgiving weekend entertainment.
The film is director David O. Russell’s first since his Academy-award-nominated The Fighter (2010), and it adopts a similar tone and structure. Like The Fighter, it tells a love story that plays counterpoint to both a family drama and an upcoming competion. The sports here are two: dance and football, and although we expect the film will eventually merge all these strands, we are still surprised with how well it does so. The family is a middle class clan of Philadelphia Eagles fans in the suburbs, and the romance is between two bipolar cases: Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Pat, just released from a mental institution, is sharp and observant, but prone to anger that he gets from his father (Robert de Niro). Tiffany, a dead cop’s widow, is damaged and tactless, and one night over a tense family dinner, the two bond over prescription drugs they’ve each taken.
The plot (which is best not over-described) involves Pat’s attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife, guided by a series of positive-thinking principles that give him motivation and also the film its name. “Excelsior!” he shouts, which will perhaps clue us in that pragmatism doesn’t factor into his thinking. His efforts, which are punctuated by talks with his Indian American therapist (Anupam Kher), eventually cause him to team with Tiffany for a dance competition in downtown Philadelphia. For her, this is an invaluable attempt to feel some normalcy after her husband’s death. For him, it’s a means to pass messages to his wife via Tiffany–which is a testament more towards his unyielding tunnel vision more to his compassion. Meanwhile, Pat’s father tries to reconnect with his son through watching and betting on pro football, and that ends up affecting all the other stories. And there are important roles for Pat’s brother (Shea Whigham) and Pat’s friend from the institution, Danny (Chris Tucker, refreshingly honest, sorta). There is also much more to the love story than I will reveal.
The summary sounds like a weird mishmash of dozens of other films. But there is more going on here, bolstered by a strong screenplay (also by Russell, based on Matthew Quick’s book). The movie doesn’t just present these characters to us; it examines them and gives them the space to feel real, not written. And it entrenches them in a subculture of football games, dying dreams, and wounded middle-class pride. The suburban Philadelphia locations provide invaluable atmosphere: not too warm, not too chilly. The Eagles fan culture is celebrated here, not mocked, and its values are framed as life-affirming, which is a hard thing to pull off to a sports agnostic like myself.
Russell, a director of considerable talent, proves once again than when it comes to coaxing pitch-perfect performances out of actors, he’s one of the best filmmakers working today. Pat is Bradley Cooper’s best performance so far, as he sidesteps the usual way a lot of actors have of making mental illness cute or pitiable. It’s a condition, and he has it, but he is also whip-smart and though he’s not completely literate (he tosses Hemmingway’s “A Farewell To Arms” out a window early on), he does wish he could be. De Niro, for his part, gives his best performance in years, with able assistance by Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mother, who sees all and knows more.
But the biggest acting triumph in the movie is Jennifer Lawrence. It has been delightful watching this actress blossom in the past two years, and turn into a bona fide, unqualified movie star. Here she proves again that unlike some actors who are tied to teen-lit franchises, she has legitimate gifts and is up for challenges. Her Tiffany is rude, obnoxious and cheerless, but she has her reasons, and she handily manages to show without telling why her character falls in love with Pat without telling us, and makes us fall for her too without ever truly asking us to.
The film is also very funny. That’s partially because of how well-observed it is about family dynamics, and also because the “funny” lines are genuinely funny and don’t actually feel like lines. An improvisational, grounded spirit glides through the movie. The film channels some of the verve of Altman in its multi-character scenes, but Russell makes it his own, not a cheap affectation. Occasionally the screenplay goes a bit too far and tries to be a little too cute (watch for flying football statistics), but for the most part Silver Linings succeeds at being charming and honest.
It all comes down to a handy climax in a hotel ballroom, which is perhaps too neat in doling out who deserves what, especially when creaky plot mechanics begin to sound. But overall, the film is sweet and entertaining, reminding us once again that although some movies can only end one way, that’s perfectly fine as long as it is earned. It’s probably more than appropriate that Silver Linings ends up up being about dance, because the move is very much a dance in one key aspect: we’ve seen these moves a million times, and the performance is exclusively about style. But…you know…man, that is some fine style.