Walking the same tonal tightrope as he did in his turn-of-the-century gulf war movie Three Kings and his award winning boxing film The Fighter, director David O. Russell turns in a boisterously off-kilter crowd-pleaser about family, infidelity, mental illness and football in Silver Linings Playbook. Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, the film stars Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) as a high-school teacher recently released from a psychiatric hospital, and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) as a damaged young woman with whom he forms a connection. A volatile mix of familial drama and madcap comedy, infectious optimism and razor-wire wit, it’s one of the most purely enjoyable films released in the past twelve months, and a highlight in the careers of everyone involved.
Eight months after almost beating to death the man with whom his wife Nikki was having an affair, former high-school history sub and recently diagnosed bi-polar sufferer Patrick Solitano Jr. (Cooper) is released by doctors at his Baltimore psychiatric hospital into the care of his homemaker mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver; Animal Kingdom) and bookmaker father Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro; Limitless). Tensions are high in the house, but as Pat tells his psychiatrist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher; You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), his parents needn’t worry; his time in the hospital has given him a whole new outlook on life; a positive attitude he plans on channelling into his some-might-say obsessive quest to win back his adulterous wife.
An easily agitated bundle of misplaced self-confidence and delusional romanticism, it’s impossible not to root for Pat Jr., whose tendency to speak without thinking creates problems when trying to ingratiate himself with friends and family; it is however hilarious, and Cooper’s deadpan delivery is spot on. Russell’s films have always had a touch of screwball comedy to them, and this one is no different. Dialogue rat-a-tats back and forth like bullets as characters shout and argue over the top of each other. It’s like a big family gathering; mad, dysfunctional, and an awful lot of fun. Family was big part of The Fighter as well, but the characters here are a little less cartoonish.
Of course, all good screwball comedies have a feisty female to give the lead a run for his money. In Silver Linings the part is filled by Jennifer Lawrence as the recently widowed Tiffany, who Pat recruits in his plan to be reunited with Nikki. The twenty-two year old Lawrence is nothing short of a force of nature in this role – angry, funny, sexy, crazy; and the chemistry between her and Cooper is electric. But there’s more to the character even than that; an emotional vulnerability hidden by aggression, which Lawrence taps into and which Pat slowly, inadvertently brings to the surface.
This is the brilliance of Russell’s screenplay. There are funny barbs and zany antics in spades, but there’s also pain, and melancholy. Pat’s unwavering, sometimes belligerent positivity makes him seem larger than life, but the hurt in his eyes when confronted with the possibility that Nikki may not want him back is very, very real. Cooper balances the humour and humanity with the same skill that Lawrence does, and those who have previously dismissed him as “just a pretty face” now have cause to reconsider.
The depth of the writing and the quality of the performances carries over to the supporting characters as well. As Pat Sr., a man who loves his son but can’t quite understand his illness, DeNiro hasn’t been this good in nigh on a decade; a scene in which he awkwardly confesses to his Pat Jr. his regrets as a father captures perfectly the gruff dynamic between a man and his son, in which emotions too often go unacknowledged. As Pat’s mother Dolores, Australia’s Jacki Weaver is the rock on which the Solitano family rests, while Chris Tucker (Rush Hour 3) turns in an absolutely terrific supporting performance as Pat’s fast talking hospital roommate Danny, whose repeated escape attempts make for one of the film’s funniest recurring gags.
As a director, Russell possesses the same limitless energy as his characters. His camera is constantly on the move; sweeping past, towards, around and away from his characters, like some irrepressible dancer. Eventually the film culminates with two wagers. One involves the outcome of a Philadelphia Eagles game, whose good fortune Pat Sr. superstitiously attributes to his son’s mental wellbeing. The other involves a dance contest, which Tiffany strongarms Pat Jr. into entering. How it all unfolds is an utter delight; a whirlwind of good feeling that you can’t help but get caught up in.