Leave it to David O. Russell to attempt making a feel-good movie about people with mental disorders. It’s par for the course, really, when you examine the New York City-bred filmmaker’s wildly offbeat body of work. Before he shepherded Christian Bale to his first Oscar in The Fighter, before he screamed at Lily Tomlin while shooting I Heart Huckabees (look it up in YouTube), and before he got into a heated argument with George Clooney that reportedly turned physical on the set of Three Kings, Russell made the indie comedy Spanking the Monkey, in which a pre-med student played by Jeremy Davies winds up banging his mom. (How’s that for a breakthrough role, Cpl. Upham?)
In terms of subject matter and aesthetic approach, then, Silver Linings Playbook, one of a plethora of new releases on this overcrowded Thanksgiving weekend at the multiplex, represents a return to basics for Russell. As such, it’s a pleasantly discombobulated crowdpleaser that nevertheless still leaves a queasy aftertaste. Your intrepid reviewer, in all fairness, tried resisting the movie’s unhinged-neurotics-turned-lovey-dovey scenario for as long as he could, but Russell and his creative team ultimately won me over.
The story kicks into gear when Philly housewife Dolores (Animal Kingdom‘s Jacki Weaver ) drives to a Baltimore mental facility, legal documents in hand, to take her younger son Pat home. It’s fairly apparent that, even though he’s already spent eight months at the loony bin, the handsome loose cannon, convincingly played by Bradley Cooper, could stand to spend a little more time under supervised care. “I’m remaking myself,” the disgraced high school teacher claims. Uh-huh. He ought to tell that to the colleague he beat to a bloody pulp when he caught him showering with his estranged wife Nikki (Brea Bee).
Once Dolores and Pat come home, it becomes clear that this domestic situation is a disaster waiting to happen. It seems Pat, Sr. (Robert De Niro) has become a tad too fond of betting on his beloved Eagles, and now he becomes fixated on Junior as a possible good luck charm. Just don’t touch his TV remotes. He likes them laid out just so. (Raise your hands if you have any relatives with similar OCD compulsions.) The retired patriarch is also, understandably, skeptical about how prepared his son is to return to a community that’s far from ready to welcome him with open arms. When a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms goes flying out of Pat’s bedroom window at 4 am, you realize his father’s concerns are far from unfounded. (It appears Pat didn’t care for the book’s downer ending.)
Henpecked hubby Ronnie (a hilarious John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles), his control freak of a life partner, take a chance on their not-so-slightly cuckoo friend and invite him to have dinner with them. They were, after all, very close to him and Nikki before the shower incident. Unbeknownst to Pat, though, Veronica invited Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), her widowed baby sis, to join them. Wouldn’t it be just darling to pair up these unstable basket cases to see if sparks fly? Tiffany sees right through her older sibling’s scheme and wants no part of it…but as contrived “Meet Cutes” go, the characters’ rough-hewn lack of social decorum results in some amusing one-liners.
Part of the problem with Silver Linings Playbook is precisely the fact that so many lines of dialogue, particularly the ones Russell wrote for Lawrence’s character, feel like overly calculated zingers. (Her backstory, in which she reveals her irresponsible sexual behavior in the wake of her husband’s passing, is an unsavory straight male fantasy.) The movie feels so scripted at times that Russell’s naturalistic, no-frills lensing lays bare the artifice even more glaringly. The Flirting with Disaster director’s a one-man rom-com wrecking crew, and he’ll be damned if you don’t have a good time witnessing the dysfunctional courtship that ensues. At first, Pat sees Tiffany as his gateway to getting in touch with Nikki, who, as that stalkerish police officer with the pornstache (Dash Mihok) keeps reminding him, has issued a restraining order against him. Tiffany, on the other hand, wants to enter a local dance contest, and he sees in Pat a willing, albeit far from ideal, partner. (Psst: That loud whirr you hear above the shouting matches is the sound of Russell’s storytelling wheels turning.)
In Russell’s defense, he’s also able to place viewers in Pat’s shoes, so we experience his neurotic worldview with oppressive immediacy. (Think what James L. Brooks did in As Good as It Gets, and add liberal amounts of profanity and, in a regrettable scene, a gay slur.) His biggest asset here is Jay Cassidy’s jagged editing, which gives the movie a high-strung rhythm that’s capable of inducing an anxiety attack. With the exception of the scenes featuring Chris Tucker’s weaselly nuthouse smooth talker, whose presence tends to grind the movie to a halt, Cassidy makes Silver Linings Playbook‘s two-hour running time whiz by.
Russell has also assembled a top-drawer cast that executes his aggressive brand of unruly charm like a well-oiled machine. Cooper brings his A game to a tricky role that could have easily fallen into shrill caricature, and even though she’s saddled with the movie’s most stilted lines, Lawrence displays palpable chemistry with her costar. Most surprising of all is De Niro, who, for a change, is not whoring himself to pick up another paycheck. When Pat, Sr. finally throws a temper tantrum, it’s as if Russell had awoken a sleeping giant. This is his best performance in well over a decade.
The climactic dance number that gives the movie its title shows you the meaning of the word payoff. It should have been the most unrealistic moment in the entire film, but it’s actually the scene where Silver Lining Playbooks truly takes flight. Balk all you want at the suspect reasons Silver Linings Playbook wants to gain your affections, but when all is said and done, it’s probably going to turn you into a mad devotee. You can feel Russell working overtime to seal the deal with his audience. That doesn’t make his movie’s hard-earned pleasures any less gratifying.
Happy Turkey Day, everyone!