Wouldn’t it be great if mental illness really was as adorable as it is in the movies?
Selling out his great talent to the (500) Days of Juno School of Middlebrow Quirk, writer-director David O. Russell has adapted Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel Silver Linings Playbook into a crassly calculated, feel-good romantic comedy that’s presumably destined for all sorts of box-office success and inevitable Oscar nominations. I can see why. It’s a goofy crowd pleaser with some pretty good performances and a carefully calibrated illusion of “edginess.” It’s also offensive.
Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a bipolar manic depressive just out of an institution and remanded to his parents’ care by the court. It seems that some time ago, Pat walked in on his wife taking a shower with a co-worker, and since then, he can’t hear Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”—their wedding song—without flying into a murderous rage. Hell-bent on self-improvement, Pat refuses to take his medication and spends all his time either catching up on literary classics or jogging around his Philly neighborhood wearing a garbage bag, pining for a wife who wants nothing to do with him.
As far as caretakers go, Pat’s parents are fairly hopeless. Mom (played by Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver) is a ditzy enabler, while Dad—the shockingly present Robert De Niro—just lost his job and became a bookie. A frantic obsessive compulsive, he frets all day and night about the Eagles, superstitiously re-arranging the proper placement of remote controls and living room tchotchkes, as any deviation from routine will inevitably jinx the team.
Enter Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany, a depressive pixie dream girl still reeling from the death of her police officer husband. Foul-mouthed and seemingly allergic to social skills, grief has turned her into a bit of a nymphomaniac because all serious problems in this movie must manifest themselves as cheap punchlines.
Pat and Tiffany hit it off immediately, trading inappropriate barbs and mocking the side effects of various anti-depressants. A hackneyed rom-com formula quickly presents itself: She’ll violate the restraining order and deliver letters to Pat’s estranged wife, just so long as he agrees to be her partner in an upcoming dance contest. Yes, a dance contest.
No points for guessing if these two fall in love during rehearsals, and I don’t want to give anything away, but there are a lot of stupid misunderstandings that could have been resolved with a single conversation. Yet Silver Linings Playbook isn’t content to milk just that stale formula; the movie also ropes De Niro’s gambling addiction and dire financial straits into a parlay bet involving the dance contest and the Eagles’ playoff chances.
So we’ve got both The Big Dance and The Big Game for maximum audience manipulation, while all real-life ramifications of psychological distress are either swept under the rug or played for laughs. (The long-lost Chris Tucker re-emerges as Pat’s mental hospital sidekick who keeps escaping as a running gag. Yeah, hilarious.) Everybody’s magically cured by the end, which is just insulting.
Russell’s Three Kings was one of the most provocative films of the ‘90s, and I adored the dizzy screwball mania of his Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. There’s usually nobody better than Russell at putting a bunch of characters in a room and letting them shout at each other, but everything about Silver Linings feels phony and contrived. The crummy camerawork is more amateurish than energetic, and the movie’s incessant loudness becomes grating in a hurry.
It’s hard to take Cooper seriously because he has the smirk of an asshole stockbroker, but Lawrence somehow finds a cool, still center within this fantasy-joke of a role. (A late scene where she rattles off Philly sports statistics confirms she’s a writer’s device and not a character.) De Niro is kind of great, which is even more frustrating because after a decade and a half of phoned-in performances, he decides to come to work for this manufactured pap?
Silver Linings Playbook probably pushed all the wrong buttons with me because I spent a long, traumatic time in a relationship with somebody suffering from bipolar disorder, and believe me, it wasn’t nearly as fucking whimsical as this movie makes it seem. Russell conveniently left out all the screaming matches, suicide threats and disappearing acts. Maybe she and I should have just entered a dance contest? Go Eagles.