Perhaps I am underestimating the appeal of esoteric works like Spanking the Monkey or I Heart Huckabees, but I feel now more than ever that the career trajectory of David O. Russell, one of the more inventive and visually authoritative directors working today, has taken an unequivocal and surefooted turn into the business of mainstream entertainment and crowd-pleasers. I have yet to determine my feelings around that. When I first saw the Oscar winner The Fighter, I noted (and celebrated) that the man who gave us the personality-oozing war comedy Three Kings had clearly retained his exuberance for the filmmaking process. That said, though, I could not help but bellyache over the fact that all this talent ultimately worked at the behest of a predictable and utterly conventional screenplay. It almost felt as if The Fighter wasn’t good enough for him.
To an extent, I feel the same way about Silver Linings Playbook as I did about The Fighter. There are some moments in his new film, adapted from Matthew Quick’s book, where the screen is loaded with such idiosyncratic energy, such cinematic showmanship, that it is impossible not to feel electrified. From the writer/director’s effortless use of high-speed tracking shots to a brisk editing style that conveys character emotions with wit and economy, Russell’s latest is a crackerjack box of technique and verve that so-called “crowd-pleasing” movies chronically forget to engender (and people wonder why TV is more culturally relevant these days). It’s almost frustrating that Russell’s script, while undeniably affirming and inspiring in a way that wins all kinds of awards this time of year, relies on affected characterization and goopy, feel-good sentiment to get its message across. Playbook’s screenplay clings desperately – and tenuously – to Russell’s directorial talents and in order to mask its own dramatic brittleness.
Additionally, Silver Linings Playbook depends heavily on charismatic performances to make its words come to life, beginning with Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano. We are introduced to Pat as he gets released from the mental health facility where, following his brutal assault on his wife’s lover, he spent his last eight months battling anger management issues. Still emotionally vulnerable, Pat moves in with his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and his father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a homemaker and an Eagles fanatic/bookie respectively, so he can continue with his therapy. With his spare time, Pat starts mulling over the best way to win back his estranged wife, despite her having sold their home and despite his having to contend with her restraining order against him. Since she is a high school teacher, he begins by reading every book on her class syllabus, from Hemingway to Golding, and by trying to alter his worldview by focusing on the positive aspects of life – the “Silver Linings,” if you will.
When he dines with a couple of old friends for dinner – friends who, conveniently, are still friends with his wife – Pat makes the acquaintance of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an extremely young, extremely recent widow who copes with her grief through meaningless sex. Damaged in their own particular ways, Pat and Tiffany get off to an ugly start, but they forge an uneasy camaraderie when they realize they can help each other. Pat hopes to “circumvent” his restraining order by sending a covert love letter to his wife, using Tiffany as his carrier pigeon. Tiffany obliges him his request in exchange for his role as a partner in a dancing competition she wishes to enter.
Plot-wise, it is almost too easy to foresee the direction Silver Linings Playbook takes. Each plot point, each conflict-arousing mix-up and each moment of poignancy is attuned to the rhythmic beats of the romantic comedy. What will surely elevate Playbook above the fray for many is the charisma of each performance. Russell has always had a knack for inspiring superb work from his actors (it was he who molded my perception of Amy Adams as a veritable acting heavyweight) and he brings that talent to this film; foremost with his lead players. Cooper, whom I’m not sure has ever impressed me, imbues his innately likeable loser with an effective – yet never mean-spirited – streak of abrasiveness that makes me hope guys like Adam Sandler are somewhere taking notes. Lawrence, who has only ever impressed me, gives a hypnotically complex turn as Tiffany, gushing callousness with her words and heartfelt tragedy with her eyes.
The supporting players are decent as well, though Russell’s underwritten material limits them. Weaver reprises the maternal pathos she explored in Animal Kingdom, this time favoring gentility over villainy, but she is far to passive to be interesting. Chris Tucker pops in every so often as Pat’s funny farm friend, and Anupam Kehr gets to dole out sage witticisms as his therapist, but neither get the chance to add texture to the story beyond their place as the wise-cracking, funny-talking people of color (apparently Indian people like to use words like “cocksucker” too. How amusing!). De Niro has been getting the most attention as Pat Sr., a father who uses his Eagles super-fandom to project how dearly he misses his son. De Niro is indeed good here and, as one tearful bedside interaction with Pat Jr. demonstrates, he reaffirms on a scene-to-scene basis that he’s truly one of the greats. But when his character is used to frame the stakes of Playbook’s plot climax – when his reluctances as a father meld indistinguishably with the risky decisions he makes as a bookie and, eventually, with Pat Jr. and Tiffany’s own journey to compete together on the dance floor – Russell’s script becomes far too muddled in what it wants to say about the powerful role family plays in helping us overcome personal adversity. As glib as it might sound, I genuinely felt more pathos in “Lisa the Greek,” the thematically similar Season 3 episode of The Simpsons.
Russell ultimately tries to jam all his disparate dramatic machinations together, as if to make a single, fully operational filmic contraption. But since it all feels so transparently forced, the movie sputters across the finish line. If it works at all, despite its overly busy writing, credit is owed to the efforts of the actors and the director to cover it all up. Again, for some, that same audacity will be enough to convince many that Silver Linings Playbook is one of the year’s greater triumphs. But how much greater a triumph might it have been had this same troupe of palpable talent found or innovated a script less beholden to the conventional, and thus more worthy of their efforts?
Bottom Line: Despite its disappointingly plain script, Silver Linings Playbook has some solid performances and stylish direction worth bragging about.