The Weinstein Co. (2012) 122 min. R
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. Russell; based on The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi; Editing: Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers
Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Heather Loeffler
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Score: Danny Elfman
Stars: Bradley Cooper (Pat Solitano), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany Maxwell), Robert De Niro (Pat Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores), Chris Tucker (Danny), John Ortiz (Ronnie), Julia Stiles (Veronica), Anupam Kher (Dr. Patel), Brea Bee (Nikki)
If laughter is the best medicine, then Silver Linings Playbook is the panacea for what’s been ailing kitschy romantic comedy of late. A first for him as far as I‘m aware, director David O. Russell’s foray into untried turf actually returns him to the darker, more acerbic edge of such earlier comedies as I Heart Huckabees and Spanking the Monkey. Likewise populated by existential oddballs and emotionally troubled outsiders, Russell, who usually writes his own scenarios, has translated Matthew Quick’s novel into a non-conformist romantic comedy about non-conformity. By which I mean it marches to its own drummer rather than trying to fit itself into the pat conventions of the genre. This movie is a square peg in a round hole.
Silver Linings Playbook is always an emotional beat or two off, making things seem a bit askew and keeping us pleasantly surprised, enough so to know it’s not playing by the book. Based on his scrappy, hardscrabble previous outing The Fighter two years ago, Russell doesn’t seem the sort of director to go all gushy on us, and Silver Linings Playbook may represent something unique in the realm of romantic comedy. This is a chick flick designed to appeal to guys as much as girls.
With its silly belief in the healing, unifying power of football serving (from title on down) to connect the dots, the incorporation of the Philadelphia Eagles as a virtual character in proceedings, the focus on the father-son relationship, and view of courtship and romance from a male perspective, the movie has certainly managed to subvert the traditionally estrogen dominated dynamic of romantic comedy. It could be argued that Silver Linings Playbook is actually seeking to raise the standards of romcom, elevating it to a higher level by removing that demeaning chick flick designation. (The argument that chick flicks are unfairly looked down on in our male-dominated society specifically because they’re considered women’s movies is a sidebar discussion for another day). In truth, this one is too good to be classified so simply, playing too markedly, and in all the right ways, with the established clichés and conventions of the genre. To dismiss it as a chick flick is to do it a disservice.
If anything, Silver Linings Playbook bears comparison to some of the finer work of James L. Brooks, specifically gold standard comedies like Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets, both of which likewise managed to transcend the restricting limitations of their genre. This movie invokes Terms of Endearment with its embarrassingly truthful insights into the dysfunctional family dynamic, and in the way it shows the capacity for even irresponsible family members to pull together and come through for their loved ones in a crisis. It’s free form association with As Good as It Gets is more obvious and superficial, in that it similarly mines gentle but searing comic gold from its characters’ obsessive-compulsive disorders, in which we’re encouraged to both laugh at their foibles and cheer them on as they struggle to surmount challenging obstacles and conquer inner demons. I guess if Russell is going to draw on Brooks’ movies as muse, we should be grateful he’s inspired by the very best.
The director’s previous release, the Oscar-nominated The Fighter, was compared to Rocky, and for good reason. Both films revolve around people getting a second chance at happiness, success and personal contentment, fighting for self respect and reclaiming some measure of dignity after being written off by society as losers. In The Fighter (as in Rocky), this was accomplished by everyone pitching in to help the main character prepare for his title bout against the world boxing champ. In the equally sport-oriented Silver Linings Playbook, this is achieved by the two emotionally damaged main characters, Bradley Cooper’s Pat and Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany, daring to take another stab at love, their courtship paralleled with the unprecedented winning streak of the Philadelphia Eagles. Whenever Pat and Tiffany are together the team excels on the field, a sign from on high that they’re meant to be.
In both Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, the director displays the same keen feeling for dysfunctional family life, with all its petty squabbles, residual issues, violently conflicting emotions, cutthroat competitiveness, and abiding love sharing equal space, without the one necessarily cancelling out the other. The director was drawn to the project because his own son suffers from OCD, and his insights into the family dynamic possess an honesty and authenticity that could only be derived from first hand experience. Silver Linings’ verisimilitude proves the comedy’s saving grace. As in The Fighter, it’s only the special bond of family, with all its extraneous, extended members, that gilds life with its silver lining. Pat’s personal motto is ‘excelsior,’ Latin for ‘ever upward,’ and while his own marriage has fallen apart, driving him off the deep end and forcing him to return to his parents’ home under his own recognizance, he comes to realize that it’s only as a family, pulling for one another, proving to be in each other’s corner when ready to throw in the towel, that any individual member can truly raise themselves up and excel. It’s a sweet sentiment for this football themed Thanksgiving release. Bridging the holiday season that brings loved ones together, Silver Linings Playbook is the perfect Christmas present to movie lovers.
The film is as much akin to classic screwball farce as anything, with its basic premise, in which a reticent man is aggressively pursued by an annoying female who refuses to accept that he’s just not that into her, and surrounded by an endearingly daffy assortment of quirky characters, all of whom are seduced by the zaniness at some point, forsaking the facade of normalcy to become happier, more fulfilled human beings. Everyone in the movie seems slightly off center, displaying their own strange form of insanity. And because they all seem to be indulging in more modified forms of crazy, we can understand why Pat can’t get his mind around the fact that his own behavior is considered socially unacceptable.
We have the obsessive compulsive perfectionism of his golden boy older brother Jake (Shea Whigham), whose high standards of achievement Pat can’t live up to, as well as that of Tiffany’s prissy older sister Veronica (it’s a pleasure to see Julia Stiles onscreen again), who she correctly accuses of loving to see her make a mess of her life because it makes hers look even better by contrast. There’s Veronica’s whipped husband Ronnie (John Ortiz), who is under such pressure to provide the sort of lifestyle his wife has become accustomed to that the stress is leading him toward a nervous breakdown. Then there’s Pat’s other friend, Danny (Chris Tucker’s frenetic, pop eyed, Rush Hour persona is well suited to this part) who keeps escaping from the psychiatric institution where the two men were incarcerated, and slipping back into society undetected.
Pat’s mother (Jackie Weaver successfully erases all memory of her nightmarish Animal Kingdom matriarch) subsists in a homemaker’s paradise where nothing ever manages to penetrate her gleaming belief that any problem can be solved with the appropriately seasoned baked good. The quirky police officer who’s been assigned to Pat’s case, Keogh (Dash Mihok), always seems to be hovering about at the most inopportune times, just waiting for him to fall on his face. He’s so eager for a collar he’d likely bait Pat to break the law just so he could experience the joy of hauling him in. Even Pat’s shrink gets in on the act, appearing at the Eagles game painted from head to toe in full team colors, looking and behaving as insanely as any of his patients. Physician, heal thyself.
Most amusing of all is the obsessive compulsive behavior betrayed by Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a gambling addict who has lost his financial grip on a life now spiraling out of control in these uncertain economic times. Without any other profession to fall back on, he’s become a bookie in the numbers racket and like a superstitious, Old World father, clings desperately to the belief that by aligning the stars just so he can exert some kind of influence over forces beyond his control. He twists a handkerchief in his hand compulsively, as if he were praying on the rosary, and believes only by watching the Eagles game with his prodigal son by his side will the team have the right juju to win. As a sardonic Pat ruefully observes, his father is unconsciously displaying the same sort of behavior he’s too mortified to acknowledge in the son who bears his name. Pat Sr. believes so obsessively in this old black magic that when he tries to connect with his boy, claiming he wants the two of them to watch the game together, as a way to make amends for not having spent enough time with him in his youth, we can’t be sure if he’s really pouring out his heart or saying anything that he thinks will get him onto that couch. We’re left feeling that there’s more to this father–son conflict than the movie ever breaks down for us. When Pat is released from the psychiatric institution and returns home to find his portrait removed from its usual position of honor beside his brother’s in the entryway, we know something is amiss. The evidence mounts when we observe that Pat Sr. no longer wears the matching necklace his son never takes off and always displays so proudly outside his shirt. His father’s falsely jovial greeting and stiffly awkward embrace confirms the suspicion we had when we saw he wasn’t there to pick up his son at the hospital, and learn that he was unaware his wife had even petitioned the court for his release. The impression we’re given is that Pat Sr. was thankful on some level to have the son he’s embarrassed by safely locked away, out of sight and out of mind. The movie’s main emotional crux hinges on Pat ‘redeeming’ himself, East of Eden style, in his inflexible father’s eyes by winning back the money lost betting on the games, thereby reclaiming the former position of honor for his portrait in the hallway.
Junior seems unduly cowed by his father, so we can’t help wondering if there’s a history of violence or abuse there, and if this didn’t somehow contribute to Pat’s condition, which emerges more pronouncedly when he’s stressed. After all, this father is played by the forbidding Raging Bull himself so there seems little wonder why his son is a mentally unstable emotional wreck. When Pat Sr. starts whaling on him under the misapprehension that he hit his mother, the boy only makes a halfhearted effort to defend himself, though he assures his shrink (none too convincingly) that he could have taken out the old man if he’d wanted to. His passive acceptance of the beating indicates this abusive behavior isn’t anything out of the norm, making us feel as though we’d strayed into a scene from This Boy’s Life. We suddenly get an inkling of where those reserves of anger and hostility that led Pat to nearly beat his faithless wife’s lover to death spring from (his father was barred for life from the Philadelphia football stadium following a similar incident). Trying to achieve the right tone, alternate takes were shot with Pat Sr. being presented as both harsher and softer, and the end result is rather erratic. We’re never quite sure if we’re meant to be scared of the man or feel sorry for him.
In Pat Sr.’s sins-of-the-fathers speech near the end of the film, he expresses the fear that parental neglect and reticence to show his son affection may have contributed to Pat’s condition. But all the clues and tics he’s unconsciously betrayed point to the real root cause of Pat’s mental disorder having actually been passed on genetically from father to son, insanity in the family unwittingly being his lasting legacy, as it was John Barrymore’s in A Bill of Divorcement. With the acorn not having fallen far from the tree, the movie’s point is clear. No one could emerge from a damaged home life like this with their sanity intact. It’s to the movie’s credit then that it doesn’t play the Freudian blame game, turning the father, or any of its characters into conventional stock villains. Silver Linings Playbook possesses a generosity of spirit that’s thoroughly refreshing.
Russell has wisely taken the more successful aspects of The Fighter and emphasized them, placing that movie’s most interesting character, the twitchy crack addict played by Christian Bale, center stage this time round. Russell’s script has even doubled the kookiness by conceptually splitting the character into competing male and female variations on the theme, a Jungian yin and yang. Bradley Cooper plays the old Christian Bale part and his performance feels familiar and fuzzy in a warmed over way. Affably daft in his slobbery way, he’s like a shambling, oversize St. Bernard who’s never been housebroken or behaviorally conditioned. Cooper sports an unexplained cut on the bridge of his beak that may have been incorporated to decrease its pronounced appearance. The actor has a sharp profile that requires such kind consideration, photography that only presents his best angles and softens them out. For instance, I’m sure the director didn’t intend Cooper to look as much like a flapping fledgling as he does when he imitates that Eagles mascot.
This skewed character may be played by People magazine’s sexiest man alive last year, but his fractured and fractious personality leaves him far removed from the dreamily facetious male fantasy figure that one finds in other romantic comedies. Having watched him vicariously live out their wildest Vegas fantasies over the course of The Hangover films (the third installment is currently in production), male moviegoers have developed a vested interest in the actor, which will hopefully help Cooper carry over his fan base, attracting a whole new demographic to this latest outing.
Playing this hyperactive character allows Cooper, who’s never been better, to show off the full range of his considerable comic talents. The actor overindulges in the idiosyncrasies early on and one can feel him pushing too hard to make good, but since this dovetails with the eager-to-please efforts of the character he’s playing, it melds in unobtrusively. As his Pat tries piecing his life back together after having hit rock bottom, infuriatingly continuing to make shambles of people’s personal property and his private prospects once out of the hospital, he treads a fine line between being funny and coming across as annoying. With an actor less personable than Cooper in the part, it’s likely the tolerance level of the audience would have been sorely tested as he obstinately disregards restraining orders and single mindedly pursues a woman who has no interest in him. One could almost imagine the young Albert Brooks of Modern Romance in this role.
Once the actor settles into the part, however, and we become more accustomed to his behavior, he manages a dynamic performance, peppered with many special moments. Cooper is hilarious in that early scene when Pat ambushes a former colleague at the college where he taught, unaware that she’s terrified of him and trying to flee the scene. His tongue practically lolling out his mouth like an excited puppy, the unpoised Pat shows happiness by leaping atop the objects of his affection, oblivious to the fact that he’s striking fear in their heart. They should probably be grateful he doesn’t start humping their leg. The actor is wickedly subdued in those satirical moments where he plays armchair shrink to everyone he comes in contact with, applying the same psychobabble constructs he’d had to endure in group therapy. He’s personally committed, of course, to making everyone sound crazier than he is himself.
Cooper betrays a bemusing slow burn when reunited with the successful Jake who can only sustain his own ego by keeping his baby bro down. Black sheep Pat’s relationship with Jake recalls the Christian Bale character’s similar rapport with the younger brother who he felt both extreme love for and a mean streak of competitiveness with, in The Fighter. This Cain and Abel scaled sibling rivalry seems so pronounced that it’s startling when, during the fracas at the Eagles game, Pat immediately jumps into the fray when he sees his brother being ganged up on, without regard to the repercussions such a rash act will have to bear on his probation. This scene too is emotionally patterned after a similar incident in the earlier movie in which a run-in with hostile cops on his brother’s behalf led to the Bale character’s incarceration. Despite interpersonal problems, when the family is threatened in Russell movies, they close ranks, present a united front, and come out swinging.
Cooper’s quirky interactions with De Niro, as the intimidating father who is both shamed by his son’s affliction and paradoxically believes him to be his good luck charm, are the stuff of acting gold. Getting to go toe to toe with a screen legend like this is the sort of once in a lifetime opportunity young comedians out to prove themselves salivate for, and Cooper has experienced the thrill twice. The lucky dog starred opposite De Niro in Limitless as well. The two men’s best moment together actually comes near the beginning, when Pat’s growing attraction to Tiffany makes him panic that his fidelity to former wife Nikki is slipping. He desperately ransacks the house in the middle of the night in search of his old wedding videos, rousing his concerned parents from sleep, his out of control hollering and increasing desperation waking up the entire household, then the entire neighborhood, as he works himself up to hysterics.
Accidentally elbowing his mother, he’s jumped and beaten into submission by his equally irate father who doesn’t realize it was an accident, leaving them both with black eyes, bruised egos and suffering through a condescending lecture from the self satisfied Keogh, who’d been called out to quell the disturbance. Fueled by miscommunication, this scene is a working demonstration of how small domestic misunderstandings can spiral out of control, escalating into full scale family crises before anyone knows what happened. It’s on just such occasions, when his Pat disgraces himself and scandalizes his loved ones, losing his grip on reality and his life, that Cooper’s performance is at its most impressive.
Experiencing the sense of emotional euphoria and invincibility that’s the manic byproduct of his bipolar disorder, Cooper plays Pat as a variation on his Nietzschean superman in Limitless. An experimental drug induced his state of intellectual euphoria in that film, while going off his meds (we see him palming them in his very first scene at the hospital), fosters an equally impressive energy level here. All hyped up, with his silver dollar bright eyes shining in glassy glee, Pat’s extemporaneous ravings, all-nighters and jumpy restlessness keep him zigzagging and lighting up like a human pinball machine. It’s dizzying just watching as he plays host to a thousand and one thoughts at once, each almost instantly heading in opposite directions we can’t follow. In one amusing bit, for instance, Ronnie distracts Pat from revealing a personal confidence by dangling a shiny bauble before his eyes, easily inducing him to lose his train of thought.
Pat has no impulse control, which seems more like Tourette’s or some form of Asperger’s Syndrome than the bipolar disorder he’s been diagnosed with. Championing his ‘excelsior’ motto, the character is so doggedly determined to remain up and positive, even in the face of defeat, that he never allows himself to crash into the doldrums. So we get no sense of the violent emotional dips of his disorder, only the manic highs. Yet we don’t really feel the absence, as we probably should, since the mourning Tiffany, who dresses like a suicidal Goth, is the embodiment of the depressive side his desperately happy highs counteract. She’s the walking manifestation of his meds; when they’re together, his mood perfectly balances out. Rather than flatlining though, making him feel all blah and listless, she sparks him, and the movie.
It takes the presence of Jennifer Lawrence to fully bring out Cooper’s performance, so it’s in those moments opposite her that his character comes most to life. Her Tiffany has been conceived, on the distaff side, to complement the craziness of Cooper’s Pat, and Lawrence’s performance is even better. We have a pretty good idea where he’s coming from but she’s a total wild card. In Tiffany, she manages to create something entirely new and unique, while matching comedy vet Cooper beat for beat. Almond eyed, plum cheeked, swan necked Lawrence, despite her hair being dyed dark here, suggests a younger, softer, less severe version of Helen Hunt at times, all mixed up with the look and feel of Renée Zellweger and Jewel and Joey Lauren Adams, with maybe a touch of Evan Rachel Wood and Leelee Sobieski thrown in for good measure. She brings to mind so many other familiar faces, I’m always surprised at how strongly her distinctive personality makes itself felt. When she’s onscreen, there’s no mistaking her for anyone else.
She’s been so good for so long, in just about everything she’s done, it comes as no real shock to see her deliver her first fully matured performance. She was only 21 when she shot this film (Cooper was 37), but her talent is so pronounced she fairly mops up the screen with him. Before she was out of her teens, she’d delivered a performance in Winter’s Bone that made her the second youngest actress ever to be nominated for the Academy Award, and was chosen to anchor the first installment of The Hunger Games, the most anticipated fanboy franchise since Twilight, emerging as a superstar for the tweensomething set with its release earlier this year. Her skillful work in that film went so far beyond the requirements of most action thrillers, it was easy to believe she’d reached her apex as a young artist, but here at year’s end, she’s absolutely surpassed herself with another career defining performance, if one angled more toward adults this time.
There’s a caustic edge to her comedy that leaves us tittering uncertainly, unsure how seriously to take her dryly sardonic, deadpan style. Lawrence is flippantly funny without being snarky about it, the way most self consciously hip, younger comedians are inclined to be. Though she appeared on the sitcom The Bill Engvall Show, playing the daughter of a shrink no less, Silver Linings Playbook is Lawrence’s first out and out big screen comedy, so it’s surprising that she doesn’t try to nudge the audience in the ribs by delivering her lines to the tempo of a laugh track. It’s her performance, distressingly little as there seems of it here, that really sets this movie to humming. The bitingly venomous edge she injects into diamond hard Tiffany tells us she’s more than a match for Pat’s burly, bearish bipolar.
Weighing their comparative levels of crazy, she takes umbrage at Pat’s assumption of superiority (he believes she’s more bonkers than he is), but then in a brilliant bit, among the best pieces of acting all year, she gives us just a glimpse into the depths of her own delusional psychosis, and we’re inclined to agree with him. Her uncontrollable, quicksilver mood swings seem to be far worse than his are. The actress uncorks a startling, primal rage here and there’s a rawness to such unloosed emotions that make them feel uncomfortably real, especially for any unfortunate male who’s ever been on the receiving end of an emotionally erratic female’s unwarranted abuse. Lawrence is so good she gives us a fleeting idea of how audiences of the ’30s most have felt watching Bette Davis emerge in Of Human Bondage, delivering a scathing tongue lashing to lover Leslie Howard, in a scene that set a precedent for her many memorable, movie apoplexies to come.
When Tiffany volunteers to serve as Pat’s go-between, exploiting his obsession with Nikki, we know she’s up to something, just not quite sure what. Turns out she’s manipulating his emotionally vulnerable Achilles heel in order to keep him dependent on her, and close by. She’s in love with him. When she dangles the prospect of contact with Nikki before him, his mental haze seems to dissipate and he instantly becomes astute and clear eyed. He’s quietly acquiescent, but in such a wily way we can see the calculating gears whirring in his head, assuring that if he can just stay subdued and focused long enough to manipulate Tiffany into doing his bidding, he’ll be scot free. He fails to realize until the end that he’s the puppet on a string, that it’s Tiffany who’s actually been manipulating him all along with her forged, Cyrano notes. Her ploy is so obvious he would never have fallen for it if he hadn’t wanted to believe so badly.
Tiffany plays the victimized card by claiming she’s being sexually harassed, but quite the opposite is true. There’s no low trick she’s above stooping to in her single minded pursuit of Pat. She’s a blitzkrieg; her sights set, wherever he goes she already has him covered. Some of the movie’s biggest laughs arise from Pat’s dismayed reactions to Tiffany’s constant ambushes during his jogs, in which she decides to accompany him, without his bothering to ask. He finds her literally chasing after him, until she agrees to let him catch her. Dizzy dames and daffy heiresses with nothing better to do in old screwball farces like My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Petulia, What’s Up, Doc? frequently behaved in this same unseemly fashion, hammering down the defenses of their hapless conquests until there was nothing left for the poor guy to do but give in.
The first film I have any clear recall of seeing Cooper in was All About Steve, in which his character was similarly pursued in an aggressively unmitigating manner by Sandra Bullock’s whackadoo. Her emotionally unstable character was meant to be as endearingly quixotic in her obsessive crushing as Tiffany is here. Indeed, if you can imagine Bullock in All About Steve as more deceptively aggressive and scarily Gothic, then you’ll have a pretty good idea where Lawrence is going with Tiffany. But even while the nutcase still pursues him, Silver Linings Playbook is as much All About Steve in the reverse, with the Cooper character, this time around, just as diligently stalking after an unresponsive woman who’s given him no encouragement. In a way, Tiffany’s pursuit of Pat simply serves as Greek chorus, becoming a play by play commentary on Pat’s own manipulative ploys to worm his way back into Nikki’s heart.
In Bringing Up Baby, the screwball classic that really set the pattern for this certifiable form of romantic pursuit, a quack offers the quote worthy opinion that ‘Feelings of love frequently manifest themselves in terms of conflict.’ Hammering away at Pat in a manner intended to force him to confront his own demons, willingly or not, the combative, lovelorn Tiffany proves that his unhealthy pursuit of the disinterested Nikki could only have been counteracted by the identical tacticts of a woman with as obsessively single minded a romantic streak as his own. She’s not only crazier than he is, she even proves a better stalker. But it’s only by taking her own advice about setting the thing you love free to see if it returns, that she finds her feelings for him reciprocated, as she does at the end, after having abandoned the dance off and headed for a relapse when all signs pointed to his reuniting with his wife.
In The Fighter, Amy Adams played a woman unfairly maligned for plucking hero Mark Wahlberg from the midst of the overbearing family who were dragging him down. Tiffany is treated after much the same manner here, with all the male characters in the movie warning Pat off her with the most dire of prognostications due to her whorish reputation. What they, like Pat, have willfully blinded themselves to is the same thing that’s painfully clear to Tiffany and to us- it’s actually Nikki who’s the worst person in the world for him. The stress and drama she entails merely serve to accentuate his violent mood swings, bringing out the bipolar disorder he believed he had a handle on. Pat went off his pills to begin with because they bloated him and Nikki wanted him to lose weight. She’s thrown his life into such emotional disarray, every time he starts to experience a panic attack, he imagines it’s their song he hears playing.
Rather than poisoning the hero, Tiffany proves the best thing that could have happened to him. Despite her gloom and doom demeanor, she’s a life affirming force. It’s Tiffany who takes up for Pat in a way he never dared for himself, appearing in the midst of his tyrannical father’s browbeating. It’s no mean feat to stare down De Niro, but she effectively plays into Pat Sr.’s superstitious nature, countering his tirade charge for charge with such an impressive array of signs and wonders, backed up by irrefutable facts and figures proving the Eagles play better when Pat is with her rather than his father, that she leaves him and the entire household utterly speechless. Audiences should be left cheering however, the way she cavalierly sweeps in and saves the day. It’s a bravura scene.
Learning to dance under her tutelage, in those scenes that form the romantic core of the movie, it’s a joy to see Pat progressively loosen up and focus on something besides winning Nikki back. Tiffany’s brand of occupational therapy succeeds in healing him, making him forget about his wife, which is what she intended all along. What she didn’t anticipate is that he’d likewise make her forget about her late husband, making her feel less guilty, enough to stop punishing herself by sleeping around. Pat’s the first guy she’d offered herself to who had enough respect not to take her up on the offer. He treats her like a lady even while she’s treating herself like a tramp, and in doing so rekindles her latent sense of self respect. He even chases off the sleaze ball that shows up on her doorstep looking for an easy lay, not realizing that it was Tiffany herself who had arranged the booty call. Pat may transfer his affections from Nikki to Tiffany, but his behavior during such scenes, and the subsequent one where Danny takes his place during dance practice, doesn’t suggest he’s become any less jealously possessive of the new lady in his life.
Having set them up hoping the two would hit it off, Veronica’s match making succeeds beyond her wildest dreams, though the low standards she ascribes to her sister’s prospects are indicated by the fact that she matches her with a guy she has such low regard for (he wears a jersey to dinner!). We recognize at once however what Pat tries to ignore, that he and Tiffany are kindred spirits. Bonding over their regimen of pills, he finds the common interests he lacked with Nikki by comparing and contrasting their mutually prescribed medications. Their experimentation with pharmaceutically enhanced moods and mind altering drugs, and the shared emotional problems that necessitated such methods of treatment, connect them in a way that leaves the other slack jawed guests at the table amusingly shut out of the conversation.
The two are spiritually bonded even further, and in a way neither immediately recognizes, by their mutual, abiding love for people who are no longer around, and the unyielding state of fidelity each holds themselves to. They remain loyal to lovers who either want nothing to do with them any longer, as is Pat’s case, or, as with Tiffany’s husband, are dead and gone. Brandishing his wedding ring like a chastity belt, Pat’s determination to remain faithful to a woman he refuses to accept wrote him off long ago is what prompts his hostility toward Tiffany. He sees her available sexuality and willingness to sleep with anyone as antithesis to the loyalty he craves from his wife. To him, she’s symptomatic of Nikki’s own infidelity, which is what drove him over the edge to begin with.
What Pat fails to grasp, and what we’re likewise ignorant of initially, is that Tiffany’s nymphomania is, to her own screwed up mind, a means of being faithful as well. She had rejected her husband before his death, refusing to sleep with him for fear of getting pregnant. Her sleeping with everyone else after the fact is her means of both punishing herself for closing her bedroom door to the man she loved, and a misguided means of trying to make it up to him. Like Pat, Tiffany hardly qualifies as an adult, still living with her parents as she does (unlike Pat, she at least has a separate entrance). Both are pampered, scolded and treated as though they were still children, so it’s no surprise they frequently act out, playing their assigned parts accordingly. Tiffany isn’t really capable of taking care of herself at this point in her life, so we recognize that her decision not to have children yet was actually a responsible, mature one, and hence there’s no need to punish herself for it.
Both Tiffany and Pat are still trying to define themselves by becoming the people their absent lovers wanted them to be, mistakenly believing that this will succeed in bringing them back, or absolve them of their former offenses. Pat obsessively tries to get trim and brush up on Nikki’s teaching dissertation to counter her charge that they had no common interests. Tiffany sleeps around, like Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, as a means of paying her respects to her late husband’s memory, proving in her way, just as steadfastly faithful as Pat wishes his wife had been. By movie’s end, she’s moved out of her reproving death shrouds, into a gleaming pant suit of virginal white.
One can sense the internal struggle as Pat’s attempts to suppress his feelings for Tiffany prove increasingly futile, no matter whether he’s ordering Bran Flakes at the diner so she doesn’t get the impression they’re out on a date (she insists it still counts even if he orders breakfast food) or brandishing that wedding ring at her as though he were warding off a vampire. This man who proved incapable of keeping any stray thought to himself before, surprises us by becoming suddenly subdued after he finds out that Tiffany forged that letter supposedly from Nikki, leaving us unsure whether or not we’re sitting on a smoking volcano. But then Russell’s script unaccountably lobotomizes the character. With no method to the madness, he’s shown to have suddenly come to his senses. What’s worse, he’s not only completely lucid, but all-knowingly wise.
It’s not likely that movies will offer up another one-two punch to match the performances of Cooper and Lawrence this year. The friction generated by the actors creates that unique, crackling chemistry that has always been the ineffable hallmark of star movie making. Russell wrote some scathingly brilliant overlapping dialogue and memorably barbed one-liners, and these verbal battles are delivered in an amusing, rapid fire manner that allows the actors to build up a rhythmic rapport. Flirting and sparring with words, as each tries to gain verbal dominance, they come across as the most endearingly combative, mutually supportive, quirky couple imaginable. The two make an ideal match, more than enough so to satisfy romanticists coming to this film anticipating a more traditional romcom. In a scene seemingly meant to visualize the old adage that the freaks come out at night, it’s the crazies, Pat and Tiffany, the only patrons not in costume, who appear to be the most normal people in the diner packed by rowdy Halloween revelers. But then that’s the joke. In appearing to be normal, they’re as much in disguise as anyone else present.
These two loco lovers seem made for each other, so one finds it difficult to fathom what their lives might have been like with their previous partners. It’s inconceivable that they were ever capable of such normal relationships, especially given the commonplace conventionality of Tom as he’s described (this rebellious chick who likes breaking all the rules was married to a cop?), or Nikki as we see her. Not even if these maddening love lives are meant to be what’s left them the emotionally unstable wrecks they currently are. We’re never given an inkling as to what these two characters were like before they went off their rockers, so they just seem comically crazy, unthreatening human looney tunes. It’s impossible to imagine them as anything but maladjusted, and I haven’t completely made up my mind whether that’s to the actors’ credit or detriment.
There are lapses in logic, such as when Pat, who’s on probation, is drawn into a public brawl at the Eagles game and hauled into custody. By the next scene however he’s been released and nothing further comes of the incident. Apparently Chris Tucker’s character, the certifiably insane Danny, who’s constantly and inexplicably escaping from the booby hatch where he’s safely locked away, is meant to represent Pat’s own wild Id monster (both Cooper and Tucker possess identical, insanely staring eyes). The two men’s relationship makes precious little sense otherwise. But it’s retrogressive to have a black man serve as the embodiment of a white guy’s unloosed physical inhibitions, showing him how to properly dance and make love to his lady. It’s amusing to note the racial myths movies willingly hold on to and propagate, even in our presumably enlightened day. It’s also redundant, considering Pat’s primary characteristic has already been seen to be his total lack of inhibition.
When dramatic situations seem overblown and the long arm of coincidence is stretched to the breaking point, Russell proves to be fully aware of his own contrivances, so that the romcom clichés never seem as grating as they should. The whole dance-practice-as-sustained-courtship-ritual seems clipped from Dirty Dancing, leaving us inclined to accuse Silver Linings Playbook of plagiarism, until the ‘big lift’ denouement shows the director was in on the joke all along, reassuring us that we weren’t delusional and just imagining the homage. Perhaps a more psychotropic visual style, like the one Terry Gilliam employed for his character’s hallucinations in The Fisher King, would have helped keep things visually imaginative and arrestingly off kilter as well, made it clear that we’re seeing the world through the slightly skewed eyes of its main characters. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography does this only sparingly, such as when an unhinged Tiffany raves about being harassed in the middle of a crowded street, making a spectacle out of herself and drawing a group of gawkers. The camera tilts at oblique angles, capturing her in the forced perspective of a fever dream as the trapped, hyperventilating Pat begins experiencing another panic attack. But then Russell has never seemed the most visually inclined of directors. During the big number, for instance, the movie’s grand finale, the camera is held almost exclusively in tight close ups.
The director may have wished to deemphasize his characters intentionally amateurish gyrations by focusing on the emotional nirvana evident in their faces, stressing that the positive, liberating influence of dance on them is so much more important than their knack for it. But this visual approach completely defeats the purpose of dancing, which is all about the fluidity and movement of the full bodied figure. The stars were coached by Mandy Moore, the choreographer of So You Think You Can Dance, who has professed a belief that Cooper has genuine natural talent (so maybe he’ll eventually end up on Dancing With the Stars after his career has begun to slip), but it was to no purpose since the camera doesn’t bother showing us what he or Lawrence learned.
Silver Linings Playbook advances a theme one doesn’t see bandied about much on screen anymore, especially in this drug sedated movie going age in which everyone is on some kind of prescription medication. That is that a moderated brand of controlled, convivial craziness may be the healthiest, most liberating thing in the world. This was a popular idea marketed in the ’60s and ’70s, in movies like A Fine Madness, King of Hearts, Morgan!, M*A*S*H, Outrageous! and the penultimate essay in the genre, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, back when the counter culture was consciously rebelling against all things considered conformist, establishment, normal (including sanity). With the world heading in the direction it seemingly was, it was the powers that be, the ones holding the keys to the kingdom, who seemed the certifiable types back then, and craziness a viable alternative. From an artistic perspective, the mentally ill were frequently regarded poetically, as visionaries attuned to some higher spiritual plane beyond the material cares of this worldly existence. Their insanity conferred upon them the ability to think outside the box, giving them insights similar to the effects of that drug the Danny character describes. It was the flurry of confessional couch movies like Ordinary People that followed in the conservative ’80s that brought an end to making emotional disorders seem like something worth contracting.
Self-help cinema like Silver Linings Playbook, which wants to push its characters toward some self-actualizing recovery by movie’s end, never seem to be in on the fundamental joke that audiences are all too aware of, namely that the kooks are far more lively, funny, colorful and endearingly human before their pat, unconvincing, eleventh hour conversion into upstanding, responsible members of society. But having already reduced its character’s psychological screw ups to screwball silliness, there’s probably no other way for the film to get around detractors who may feel that mental illness is no laughing matter. The subtle irony is that by ‘reforming’ its characters in the last few seconds of screen time, making them seem less crazy than they always had before, Silver Linings Playbook ends up validating the negative perception that social ‘undesirables’ are only tolerable if they conform to the acceptable civilized norms, the very thing their kooky craziness had seemed a passive protest against in the first place.