Over a lifetime of moviegoing, I’ve seen more heartwarming flicks about the mentally ill than I care to admit, but until now I’m not sure I had ever seen one where the main character seemed like he might have been based on the director. Artistic motives are a complicated thing, and maybe something else attracted David O. Russell to the script for Silver Linings Playbook, which has become this year’s entrant in the Oscar bracket reserved for quirky, low-budget character studies. But the parallels between Russell’s Hollywood career and his protagonist’s trajectory are part of what makes the movie interesting.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a high-school teacher who catches his wife in flagrante delicto with a fellow pedagogue, beats his cuckolder savagely, breaks down, and lands in a mental institution. When he emerges eight months later, he has a shrink, a restraining order, medication, and a plan — the “look on the bright side” attitude that gives the movie its cumbersome title — to keep his rage in check. That optimism convinces him that he can save his marriage, and even though he isn’t allowed by law to see his wife, he hopes that he can win her admiration from afar by going back to basics — living with his parents in the Philadelphia suburbs, getting in shape by jogging every day, and reading his way through the classic novels that she teaches to her high-school students.
This story somewhat parallels Russell’s own career, which began with promising independent work, crested with 1999’s brilliant Gulf War movie Three Kings, and then was nearly undone by his own demons and anger problems. Russell was a nightmare on sets, screaming at cast and crew alike: He nearly had a fistfight with George Clooney, his star on Three Kings (Clooney called the filming “without exception, the worst experience of my life”), and after his vicious rant at Lily Tomlin during the making of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees hit YouTube, he didn’t release another movie for six years.
What saved him was a return to the simple, the straight-ahead, the conventional. Mark Wahlberg brought him on to direct 2010’s The Fighter, a feel-good, blue-collar, Boston-set boxing movie with no pretensions or indie fussiness, and it was a commercial and critical hit. Having succeeded once with squareness, Russell has gone back to the well: Silver Linings Playbook swaps Philadelphia for Boston, the Italians for the Irish, and a combination of dance and football fandom for boxing, but like The Fighter it’s an old-fashioned, upbeat, relatively predictable movie in which a white ethnic guy from a wacky, sports-obsessed family triumphs over adversity, winning the love of the right woman along the way.
The difference is that in Silver Linings the hero is actually unbalanced, which lends the early part of the movie a stronger crackle of unpredictability but makes its happy ending feel a little bit more forced. The mental instability isn’t confined to Cooper’s Pat; it predominates among the nominally sane as well. His father, played by Robert De Niro, is a part-time bookmaker whose gambling looks like an addiction and whose Philadelphia Eagles fandom is shot through with OCD. Pat’s best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), is barely holding it together as he tries to live up to his chilly wife’s expectations and his new baby’s demands. And his love interest, Tiffany, is a head case in her own right: Played by Jennifer Lawrence, the satin-cheeked star of The Hunger Games, she’s a cop’s widow who dealt with her husband’s death by sleeping with every man who would have her (and some women), and who falls into a deeper relationship with Pat (and persuades him to become her partner for a dance contest) only because he’s too obsessed with winning back his wife to respond to her sexual advances.
That’s a lot of madness or near-madness to spin into a happy ending, and the strain of getting there ultimately shows. Silver Linings intends to be a crowd pleaser, and in a barren period for romantic comedies it’s nice to see the movie-star chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence supplemented with strong supporting performances and Russell’s spiky, clever script. But the first act, in which craziness eclipses happiness, does its work too well: While I enjoyed the movie’s arc, I never quite believed that the characters’ personal problems could actually be conquered by the gimmicks that the script falls back on in the second and third acts.
The best scene in Silver Linings Playbook comes relatively early, when Pat and Tiffany have their first night out together, and their respective pathologies unite to create an epic, dishes-smashing, all-too-public disaster of a date. It’s a rawer and more authentic moment — and one that’s truer, alas, to the realities of mental illness — than the Hollywood business of bets and dance contests that ultimately brings and keeps the couple together. And its presence in this movie is a reminder that while squareness and conventionality may have saved David O. Russell from career oblivion, he knows more about darkness than his last two movies would suggest.