I am drawn to movies that don’t fit easily into categories. That would be the case with David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012), a peculiar and charming confection laced with whiskey and probably a lot more. Here’s a movie that tricks you into thinking you’re watching a serious drama about mental illness until you realize that its main character enters the loony bin only after he’s been released from the asylum. It gives us characters who need and deserve each other and never makes you doubt its affection for them, and that is fitting for a movie about crazy people being drawn to other crazy people. This is a crazy movie.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, who suffers from undiagnosed bipolar disorder and was confined to a mental facility after sending his wife’s lover to the hospital. He rejects his medication, is quick to violent rages and can’t handle hearing the song that was playing when he caught his wife with the other man (“My Cherie Amour,” by Stevie Wonder, which was also the first song he and his wife danced to). Despite the doctor’s recommendation Pat is brought home by his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) to live with her and Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) in Philadelphia. This is some family. They care for each other, but it’s clear that Pat Sr., at least, has a higher opinion of his oldest son, lawyer Jake (Shea Whigham) than his namesake. Pat Sr. spends most of his time making book with the snaky Randy (Paul Herman) and virtually all his time watching, discussing and rooting for the Eagles.
It’s not hard to see where Pat Jr. got his problems from: His father is tirelessly compulsive and superstitious to an insane degree (a character is asked to hold the remote control in a certain way after the Eagles seem to play better when he does so), and his temper is not long (he is banned from the stadium where the Eagles play for fighting). Dolores hems and haws but exerts little order and apparently thinks that family dysfunction can be cured by making crabby snacks and “homemades” every Sunday. In this environment Pat’s mental shape, believe it or not, does not improve. Pat is obsessed with winning back Nikki (Brea Bee), his estranged wife, who has a restraining order out on him. He believes that if he stays fit and acts right, they can return to normal as if nothing ever happened, a dream that everyone around him, including his parents, Nikki’s friends and his therapist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), looks awkwardly away at whenever he mentions it.
Into this sea of psychosis appears Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), quite suddenly, to add her own potent neuroses into the mix. Tiffany is a damaged widow, also living in the shadow of a successful sibling (her older sister Veronica [Julia Stiles] who seems to do everything right), and she and Pat hit it off by comparing the effects of the various medications they’ve been on. She’s a firecracker and grabs Pat’s attention immediately, but he’s too single-minded about Nikki to allow her to distract him. “Look, I had a really good time tonight and I think you’re really pretty, but I’m married, okay?” he says showing her his wedding ring. “You’re married? So am I,” she responds, showing off hers. Pat furrows his brow. “No, that’s confusing. He’s dead.” Pat uses Tiffany, who is an acquaintance of Nikki’s, to bypass the restraining order and send messages to his wife; in return Tiffany demands that he train to be her dance partner at a big competition. Pat remains oblivious that Tiffany is falling in love with him, and he ignores his own feelings, spouting nonsense about a marital love that we sense, if it ever existed the way he talks about it, is too far gone now. As the dance competition nears, the emotional stakes are multiplied by practical ones as every avenue in Pat’s life arrives at a head.
What’s distinguishes Silver Linings Playbook is the style in which it’s made and written. The visual strategy employs a consistent and effective series of zoom-ins and close-ups, creating a claustrophobic and manic effect. At the same time, the blocking of the actors is wonky, creating inconsistencies in where people are in relation to each other. On top of that, characters appear to come in out of nowhere, introduced by whip-pans or zoom-ins; there’s always somebody at the door or calling on the phone. The effect isn’t frustrating or disorienting, but it tosses the world slightly askew, giving us a peephole into Pat’s troubled worldview, in which he’s rarely aware of what’s going on. The script, by Russell based on a book by Matthew Quick, is a beauty of social bad taste and romantic faux pas. None of the characters have filters or self-awareness, and there’s an ongoing contest to see who can make the biggest ass out of themselves. Pat is correctly diagnosed as saying more inappropriate things than appropriate things and every character has a deficiency, one that they are more or less proud of, and they knock them against each other.
That’s what’s so intriguing about Silver Linings Playbook; it takes the conventions of romantic comedy, kills them and creates a goofy, zombified version that emerges from its grave. This isn’t a screwball comedy; it’s a nutball comedy. If the movie wanted to take mental illness seriously, I might be more critical. If it wanted to take anything seriously, perhaps I would bat an eye. In the last third the movie goes so gloriously off the rails that it splits completely from reality and even from much of the feeling it was building earlier in the movie, but the mania is so infectious it swept me along with it. Here is a comedy in the fashion of Preston Sturges that uses only comic logic as its governance, complete with a feisty female lead who is manipulative, selfish and irresistible.
Lawrence and De Niro are great as combatants of sorts for Pat’s soul, Cooper is steady as the acted-upon hero, and there are an astounding number of supporting performances of high-quality (I cherished Weaver’s long-suffering anxiety and a character played by Chris Tucker, a friend of Pat’s from the asylum, who keeps turning up and is then taken back to the madhouse by the authorities). Credit also Masanobu Takayanagi, the director of photography, for creating a landscape that is enjoyably unintelligible, a difficult task indeed. Pulling all the strings, of course, is Russell, who puts together his most complete film. When writing about Russell’s Three Kings (1999), I said that since that roaring debut Russell has gained filmmaking polish but lost some energy based on the mess that was I Heart Huckabees (2004) and the by-the-numbers The Fighter (2010). That energy is back completely in Silver Linings Playbook, which can be called many things but by-the-numbers would never be one of them. It’s the best comedy of the year.