Were I to describe Silver Linings Playbook in a single word, it would be “insistent”. We should consider the source, though; after all, David O. Russell is nothing if not blunt in his cinema and mercurial as a man. So when Silver Linings Playbook grips you by your lapels and stares you in the eyes with its bountiful preciousness, there should be no doubting the point of origin of the film’s frank, broad sense of urgency. What Russell has produced here is a work that, like 2010’s The Fighter, stands far removed from the angrier offerings of his salad days and which continues his journey down the path of mainstream visibility and success, suggesting that he’s on a hiatus from making biting, satirical pictures like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees.
He’s also managed to make a pretty good movie, and in doing so demonstrated how a gifted filmmaker can trump the trappings of formula, which Silver Linings Playbook practically steeps in for two hours. In fact, the most valuable treasure found in the film happens to be quality of craft rather than emotional poignancy; this is a picture which proves that tropes need not be employed in the spirit of rank mediocrity, and if Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t rewrite the romantic comedy textbook it still operates within the genre’s restrictions at a level of excellence that far surpasses that of its cinematic cousins. Why can’t a movie like This Means War reach the heights of screwball delight that Silver Linings Playbook does? Partly because McG is no David O. Russell, and partly because contemporary rom-coms are far too eager to be antiseptic and toothless.
Make no mistake, Silver Linings Playbook can be characterized very easily as celluloid froth. At times it’s nearly too quirky and darling for words, though Russell reigns in overtly saccharine indulgences to keep his film from being too cloying; he simply renders those elements light and airy instead. But Silver Linings Playbook is also a film of dysfunction, a story that revels in its characters’ mental ailments and ticks and mines them for laughter. Here, we meet Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) as he returns home to Philly following an eight-month stint in a state institution intended to restore his mental health after his entire life went to pieces; upon first introduction, there isn’t enough evidence to argue that being committed cured him, but he’s happy (perhaps too much) and energetic (ditto).
He’s also obsessed with repairing his life and getting back to the way things were, and there’s our first red flag. Pat harbors some heavy-duty delusions about reconciling with his unfaithful wife (whose infidelity, we learn, was the straw that broke the football fanatic’s back) and teaching again. Observing Pat as he clashes with reality is painful, but the film tempers our sympathy with hope for him in the form of Tiffany (the luminous and fearless Jennifer Lawrence), a grieving widow with her own unique set of baggage.
They meet; she clearly likes him. (Really clearly.) He, on the other hand, is too thick-headed to notice the beautiful woman in front of him, and remains intently focused on reconciling with his wife. Cooper isn’t one for playing outside of a certain comfort zone, but his interpretation of Pat’s issues puts him firmly outside of that safe realm. As Lawrence, proving herself yet again to be one of America’s best performers young or old, male or female, bullishly pursues him– recalling a classical rom-com tradition, she’s a woman who knows what she wants and won’t relent until she gets it– Cooper veers even further into untested waters and reaches peaks of genuine, scary greatness (notably a scene involving a late-night dispute with his parents, the excellent and criminally underused Jackie Weaver and Robert De Niro, who’s so good that you’ll want to ret-con the last fifteen years of his career). But then the end happens, and Silver Linings Playbooks falls off the rails.
That’s actually a misleading statement; truthfully, the last act is when the film realigns itself, getting back on not the right track but certainly the expected track. No, Russell isn’t really pushing the envelope before he arrives at his story’s climax and becomes compelled to wrap things up in the most pat ways possible, but he is telling an engrossing story very, very well. Pat and Tiffany don’t have ups and downs as much as they have peaks and valleys; their love story (perhaps that’s being generous, given Pat’s obliviousness) alternates between basking in its own quirkiness and traveling down somber, darker paths. Pat is so manic and so driven to achieve his one goal, and Tiffany keeps the heartache his disaffection causes her bottled up, that we can’t reasonably expect them to have anything resembling a purely happy ending.
So when Silver Linings Playbook becomes a Frank Capra movie in the final twenty minutes or so, there’s a distinct sense that Russell has lost interest. There’s no reason these characters cannot have positive resolutions to their arcs, but as football games, dance competitions, and Pat Sr.’s reputation and livelihood intersect and the stakes get raised to Herculean proportions courtesy of one of the most insane bets I’ve ever heard of in my life, it becomes clearer and clearer that Russell just wants to hit all the necessary beats to wrap up his narrative and get to the closing credits. He’s set his film back into lockstep to keep up with audience expectations.
Yet he and his cast do so much to invest us in their characters’ troubles that we don’t totally mind the bubbly ending. We care about Tiffany. We care about Pat. And maybe that’s all that matters. Silver Linings Playbook hardly qualifies as bad filmmaking, or mediocre filmmaking, or even simply “decent” filmmaking; though it might not stack up to Russell’s cheekier, edgier films, it’s leagues ahead of its genre peers, lovely and humorous and raucous and sobering when it needs to be. But I can’t help wishing that Russell had stuck the landing and made a “great” film instead of merely a “good” film.