David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated 2010 film The Fighter underwhelmed me relative to its critical acclaim because the story felt so generic, salvaged by great performances in the lead and supporting roles. With his follow-up, Silver Linings Playbook, based on a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Russell is mining more serious territory – most of the central characters are grappling with various forms of mentall illness – but with the general tone of an indie comedy, resulting in a film that takes its serious issues seriously, but not so seriously that the movie drags or becomes something less than enjoyable.
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, showing unexpected range) is just getting out of an eight-month stint in a mental institution where he’s been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder after “the explosion,” an incident (later hashed out in full) that resulted in a plea agreement that kept him out of jail but left him with a restraining order against him and some fear and prejudice among neighbors and former co-workers. His parents, played by Oscar winner Robert Deniro and Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (for 2010’s Animal Kingdom), form an unstable support system for Pat, unable to fully understand his disorder or, in the case of Pat’s father, to separate his own needs from those of his son.
Pat’s one constant friend, Ronnie, himself dealing with a pretty serious anxiety problem but receiving no help for it, ends up introducing Pat to his sister-in-law Tiffani (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed young woman with serious issues of her own beyond her grieving, and the two form an immediate connection over dinner when discussing the side effects of their various medications. (I particularly laughed at the discussion of Klonopin, an anti-depressant I was once prescribed as a sleep aid but never took because I was concerned about … well, exactly what Pat and Tiffani described.) Their partnership in healing is uneasy between Pat’s lack of any filter between his brain and his mouth and Tiffani’s wildly varying emotional states, but it’s also evident from the start that the two will end up together – and, to the credit of Cooper and the always-impressive Lawrence, it feels surprisingly natural. Tiffani extorts Pat into being her partner in a couples dance competition, which feels a little implausible, and that ends up a family-wide event due to a rather improbable two-event parlay that was the movie’s one real false note for me. The Pat-Tiffani storyline works independently of the bet, which is played for laughs rather than plot and only provides a reason for Pat’s father to be there at the end to give his son some advice that Pat didn’t actually need after all.
The film is absolutely carried by the performances of its four principals, led by Lawrence, who I argued was worthy of the 2010 Best Actress Oscar over the landslide favorite, Natalie Portman, for Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone. Lawrence has a stronger groundswell of support now, as one of Hollywood’s It Girls, thanks in part to her lead role in The Hunger Games, but she does the most in this film with the hardest role because her character lacks emotional boundaries – she varies from desperate to angry to crushed to sultry from sentence to sentence, and conveys her grief over her husband’s death and her own previous emotional problems as much through body language and tone as through her dialogue. (She’s also stunning as a brunette.) Deniro turns in what is probably his best work in a decade, playing Pat’s highly superstitious father, himself likely dealing with an undiagnosed mental illness, loving his son and yet obviously fearing him at the same time because he can’t understand why his son acts and speaks the way he does. Weaver, an Australian actress who dominated Animal Kingdom as the amoral head of a ruthless crime family, nails the Philadelphia accent and the role of the subservient wife to a husband who’s probably been something between difficult and impossible for their entire marriage. I could see all three earning Oscar nods, while Brad Cooper, who lacks the others’ history of work in serious roles and would be up in the most competitive category, gets Jim Carrey’d and ends up on the outside looking in. We even get a few great scenes from Chris Tucker, talking faster than ever, and Julia Stiles, somewhat surprising as a domineering wife to Pat’s friend Ronnie.
I was also very happy with how the film dealt with mental illness, taking it seriously but infusing what could have been a very depressing subject with humor, both dark and silly. (Anupam Kher has a couple of scene-stealing lines as Pat’s therapist.) Pat has several episodes of manic or depressive behavior, as well as the “explosion” shown in flashbacks, and some of them are, appropriate, quite painful to watch. I’ve seen several reviews, including the A/V Club’s top 20 films of 2012, that denigrated the film as a “rom-com” that implies that the cure for bipolarity is finding the right, quirky girl. I think those critics miss the point entirely: Pat gets better over the course of the film once he starts taking his medication, investing himself in therapy, and following his therapist’s advice to develop coping strategies and expose himself to potential triggers. That’s how treatment works for any mental illness, including the anxiety disorder for which I’ve belatedly getting treatment this year. Silver Linings absolutely makes it clear that the medication and treatment are working because Pat’s character doesn’t evolve until he gets serious about them. His moods change, his filter reappears, and his word choices start to reflect things he’d likely be hearing or discussing in therapy. Russell doesn’t shove this down our throats, elevating the romantic element (even though Pat and Tiffani don’t actually kiss until the penultimate scene) over the mental-illness storyline, but he lays it all out for anyone who’s paying attention, and respects the subject even while often deriving humor from it. I don’t see how anyone could walk away from this film getting any other message about mental illness beyond “get professional help.”
Silver Linings Playbook is a comedy, and there is a romance, but calling it a rom-com doesn’t do it justice because it omits what sets this film apart from even indie romantic comedies. It tackles a serious subject with intelligence and wit while enveloping the viewer in a compelling romance that builds organically through mostly natural plot elements. The character development is far stronger than in even a good “rom-com,” and the performances are all Oscar-worthy, especially in what seems to be a weak year for serious films. And it’s pretty damn funny too. All rom-coms should be so good.