Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

Released in 2012 and forgotten by 2013, Silver Linings Playbook is another classic David O. Russell film that makes you want to run out and tell all your friends, “meh.” This Best Picture nominee stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver, all of whom were nominated for Oscars (making this the first film in 31 years to earn nods in all four acting categories), with Lawrence taking home the award for Best Actress. The film also features Chris Tucker in an attempt to raise money for his personal charity: paying off back taxes.

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Cooper stars as bipolar Pat, who’s being released from a mental hospital after a manic outburst eight months prior. He found his schoolteacher wife Nikki in the shower with a coworker and nearly beat the guy to death, which resulted in Nikki getting a restraining order against him.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

Pat returns to live with his parents (De Niro and Weaver) in Philadelphia, and he’s got a new outlook where he insists he’s going to take all the negativity around him and find the “silver lining”. He obsessively tries to better himself by jogging around town (while wearing a garbage bag to help sweat off the pounds) and also reading all the books on Nikki’s syllabus, in the hopes of getting back his old job as a substitute teacher.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite going in his favor. Everyone seems to be afraid of him, and he’s still having rage-filled explosions whenever he hears the Stevie Wonder song that was playing when he caught his wife cheating. But despite the restraining order, and despite the fact that Nikki has already sold the house and moved on, he truly believes that he’ll get her back.

Soon, Pat is invited to a friend’s house for dinner, where he meets his friend’s sister-in-law Tiffany (Lawrence). Tiffany has some problems of her own, not the least of which is the death of her husband, which together with her borderline personality disorder compelled her to sleep with all of her coworkers (even the female ones). They have some awkward chemistry, and Tiffany almost immediately offers to have sex with Pat. He turns her down because he still thinks of himself as married, but Tiffany continues to pursue him, even going so far as to stalk him on his jogging route.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

Eventually, the pair bond over their shared neuroses and medications, and they quickly realize that they can use each other. Tiffany apparently knows Nikki, and promises to get a letter to her, but in return, Pat has to dance with Tiffany in an upcoming contest. Their routine is pretty shaky at first, but with some coaching from Danny (Chris Tucker), Pat’s friend from the mental hospital, they slowly start to improve.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

In a conjoining plot, Pat’s father has a bookmaking side business going on, and he thinks Pat is his good luck charm. He truly believes his beloved Eagles have a better shot at winning when his son watches the game with him, but going by the way Pat’s father carefully aligns the remote controls on the coffee table, this is clearly a manifestation of his OCD. Also, Pat Sr. has been banned from the Eagles’ stadium for fighting, so apparently violent outbursts run in the family.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

But as Tiffany points out, the good luck charm is stronger when she and Pat are together. She outlines in detail how the Eagles (and also the Phillies) consistently win when they’re rehearsing their dance routine together. So Pat Sr. decides to bet his life savings on how well they do in the competition. If they get a score of at least 5 out of 10, he’ll win enough money to realize his dream of opening a restaurant.

Meanwhile, Tiffany passes on that letter from Pat to Nikki. She gives him a response letter that’s supposedly from Nikki, but Pat quickly realizes Tiffany forged the letter, because it uses a phrase about “reading the signs” that Tiffany always uses. It turns out Tiffany has been conspiring with Pat’s parents for a while now, and the three of them agreed to lie and say that Nikki would show up to the dance contest as a way of making sure Pat keeps his promise to do it.

Pat and Tiffany compete in the contest, and even though they screw up their routine, and all their fellow competitors are professional dancers, they somehow end up with a score of exactly 5.0. And by pure coincidence, Nikki actually does show up (what happened to that restraining order, again?). Pat goes to make his peace with Nikki, and Tiffany instantly gets jealous and runs off.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

Eventually, Pat finds her, and reveals that he knows she was lying to him all along, but it doesn’t matter, because he loves her. The film ends with them as a couple, their wedding rings finally removed, and with Pat’s father making plans to open that restaurant.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

Silver Linings Playbook moves along at a brisk pace, and it’s expertly edited. The film is lean, tight, and without much filler. This is one of Russell’s best attributes, although his scripts are rarely as good as his directing and pacing.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence both give solid performances, and it’s nice seeing Cooper expand his range after the endless Hangover trilogy. Lawrence seems at ease in every film she’s in, and this role is no exception. She commands attention during her scenes, and their chemistry is equally engaging.

But while the leads may have chemistry, their characters are remarkably thin. In fact, this is a common problem I have with Russell’s films: the characters are often so vaguely defined, or just plain unlikable that I wonder why I’m even watching a film about them in the first place. This started with The Fighter, where the majority of the film had a white-trash family yelling at each other. And his latest, American Hustle, features equally annoying people doing scummy things.

In Silver Linings Playbook, the characters are defined by their one-dimensional psychological quirks and not much else. And there’s really not a lot of depth to the story, either. Sure, the plot progresses, the characters slowly change, and there’s tension and all of that cinematic stuff. But underneath it all is a disappointingly well-worn formula. Take away the bipolar disorder, OCD, and neuroses, and you’ve basically got yourself a typical romantic comedy.

Here’s my problem with Russell as a filmmaker: he has talent and can compose a scene, but he always finds his material more interesting than it actually is. His films look great, they have great soundtracks, and his actors give it their all. But in the end, we’re left with a series of good scenes that somehow add up to a mediocre film.

Think about it: how many Russell films have you seen twice? These movies come into theaters, are lavished with praise by critics, and then are forgotten until the next Russell flick comes out two years later. Is The Fighter going to be re-watched like Rocky or Raging Bull? Will American Hustle be remembered alongside classic Scorsese? And once Lawrence-mania finally calms down, will anyone remember her in Silver Linings Playbook, or will it ultimately be seen as one of the more unimpressive lead performances to ever win an Oscar?

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Bipolar disorder as cute rom-com quirk

Overall, Silver Linings Playbook is a decent film, but what brings it down is that it seems perfectly content to be simply “decent”. Would it have hurt this film to have a more biting sense of humor, or a love story we haven’t already seen, or something to make it unique?

And make no mistake, there’s nothing unique about this film’s approach to mental illness. Maybe it’s something the members of the Academy thought was fresh and exciting, but even Russell knows that he’s seen all this before. But he’ll present it for your consideration all the same.

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  • MichaelANovelli

    To me, this film was a lot like American Hustle in that it’s one of those movies that nobody actually seems to like, but they keep heaping awards on it, anyway. Kinda verges on self-parody if you think about it…

    • E.Buzz Miller

      American Hustle was really well acted, but I kept waiting for the film to have a second act or a twist. It was like a good Scorsese imitation, just it didn’t have a way of telling that story in an interesting way, or much of a story to begin with.

      • MichaelANovelli

        One could probably chalk that up to the common period drama mistake: “Hey look, everyone’s wearing funny outfits! Isn’t that weird?”

        • E.Buzz Miller

          Yeah there was a real sense of ‘dress-up’ in the costumes, particularly Adams and Lawrence.
          I also think they thought this scam was more interesting than it actually is on film, and it never struck me as if anyone involved was particularly clever, like in say a movie like The Sting.

  • Tyche

    I never saw this one, but I did see American Hustle and I distinctly remember that it was being advertised as a comedy. I didn’t laugh once during that movie. In fact, I left the theater depressed by what had happened to poor Jeremy Renner’s character. Based on that experience and the above review I don’t think I’ll be seeing this one.

  • StevePotter

    I personally loved this movie when I saw it, and I still love when I watch it. Admittedly, some of that might have to do with timing, because the film connected with me on a very personal level when I saw it.

  • I was mostly bored during the movie. Everyone is really frustrating to listen to and I imagine they would be insufferable to know in real life. And I don’t know what the message is, “let’s be fucked in the head together” maybe. So if there is no message, the characters are unlikable, and the plot is boring why watch it?

    I imagine that watching good actors ACT THEIR HEARTS OUT is why a lot of the geezers in the Academy recognized it, but I don’t see any broad appeal.

  • filmguy450

    Thank you Mr. Ivan K. I have been saying a similar thing since the film debuted into theaters two years ago. Also, I believe you missed the ‘manic-pixie dream girl’ trope by way of mental health problems, which bugged the hell out of me!

    My issues with the film surprised me, as I am a big fan of Russell’s earlier work, and have seen them multiple times (since you asked). “Three Kings” is a pretty terrific and different kind of war film, while ‘Flirting With Disaster” was a cute little comedy. However, the movie of his I have seen the most is “I Heart Huckabbes” because I believe it to be a perfect movie. Love it to death.

    But, starting with “The Fighter” and continuing until now, his work has been missing that idiosyncratic style and voice, and is being filled in by nothing, so his films have nothing to say nor do they have a real point any more.

    Sorry for the rant, but Mr. Russell’s slow demise to journeyman saddens me quite a bit. Thanks for the excellent (and accurate) take on the movie. I entirely agree.

  • Sardu

    How many David O. Russell films have I seen once?

    Er, none of them. Just wanted to share that. I love you guys. Wow, I feel better.

  • Thomas Ricard

    The need for many western audiences, particularly anglophone ones, to have “likeable” or “relateable” lead characters in their films is quite disheartening. Is validation of our own beliefs and attitudes really all we seek in works of art and entertainment? Should we not demand more challenge from them? While “Silver Linings Playbook” had a few limitations and an unrealistically optimistic ending, it was at least refreshingly honest in the way it let its characters and their mental illnesses get on your nerves and make you feel uncomfortable, unlike the watered-down sanitized quirkiness of films like “Garden State”, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” or the otherwise okay “Little Miss Sunshine”. Try and challenge yourself by watching films like John Cassavetes’ “Faces”, “Husbands”, “Minnie & Moskowitz” & “A Woman Under The Influence”, Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland” or Maurice Pialat’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together” & “To Our Loves”; films that force you to spend an hour (or in some cases 2 and a half hours) with people you wouldn’t be able to stay in the same room with in real life, puts you face to face with their otherness until you let your guard down and come to see beyond what makes them scary/despicable/annoying, without the screenplay spelling it out for you à la Save The Cat.

    • John Calvin

      If only we could all be as awesome as you.

      • Thomas Ricard

        Upon rereading myself, I do realize I sound more than a tad pedantic and for that I apologize. I simply feel that characters not being likeable is not a valid complaint against a film unless said film makes it quite clear that it believes them to be so and that it expects you to like them. In this case, the film does expect you to like Pat or Tiffany but that is supposed to be in spite of their illnesses, not because of them (which is why I found it quite refreshing in that regard). I myself found them relatively likeable but above all else interesting. Rather than Ivan K’s characterization of the film as a formulaic romantic comedy using mental illness as a quirk to make itself look more original than it really is, I perceived it as successfully conveying the difficulties of living such a life all while working within traditional Hollywood structures. (I expand upon this a little in my review here: http://instandmindshots.blogspot.fr/2014/07/silver-linings-playbook.html). I still stand by the main point I made in my previous comment: Audiences should not be afraid to engage with characters they might not understand or relate to. It’s always an unnerving, sometimes frustrating experience but in the best of cases, you come out with a changed perspective.

        • John Calvin

          I can’t speak for all of western earth, but I can tell you why I found Silver Linings to be both unentertaining and insulting, and it has nothing to do with my inability to deeply engage unsettling characters. I live in a family where bipolar is not only present, but it has been passed down over multiple generations. I’ve dealt with having to hide kitchen utensils so I didn’t have to have one pulled on me a second time, stayed up all night making sure a family member didn’t go through on a threat to cause harm to themselves and others in the house. SLP should have either been more lighthearted or actually portrayed bipolarity in a more realistic light. People that criticize Full House and 7th Heaven for portraying a grossly unrealistic view of family life and crises have to criticize SLP using the same logic. As someone who has dealt with that in personal life, and deals with broken families on a daily basis, I don’t need entertainment that so closely mirrors real life that my mind can’t disengage from it all for awhile.

          • tcorp

            ^I agree with John Calvin on this one, Thomas. Even among the movies you mentioned, SLP stands out to me as a movie that fundamentally misunderstands mental illness. Moreover, I think SLP was woefully miscast. I’m not sure what Cooper was channeling here, and Lawrence should have been replaced with an actress at least 10 years her senior. (Hollywood doesn’t like “older” women, though.)

          • Thomas Ricard

            I understand they originally wanted Anne Hathaway, who played a similar role in “Love & Other Drugs” to very good effect.

          • filmguy450

            I greatly enjoy “Faces”, “Husbands”, “A Woman Under The Influence”, and “To Our Loves”. While the characters of a movie don’t need to be likable for me to enjoy the film, they do in to be relate-able, in so much as I need to understand their arc/ motivations. SLP is not only insulting to real life people dealing with bipolar disorder (my older brother has it, and things weren’t always easy thanks to that) because it really does make these characters look quirky versus realistic; it also fails to make the character motivations make any sense. Even with his mental health problems, I am surprised the courts were so hard on Cooper’s character considering the situation leading up to him beat that guy up. Lawrence is even worse, as she exists solely to help Cooper move on with his life and get his shit together (relatively speaking), and she gets… a guy! She’s just the manic-pixie dream girl trope, disguised as someone who is quirky because of her mental issues. This movie fails because it is emotional dishonest and is using serious issues to hide its obvious and sad cliches/ tropes.

          • Thomas Ricard

            I wouldn’t go so far as to call Tiffany a manic pixie dream girl, since she isn’t idealized the way MPDGs tend to be. What bothered me was how the ending made it unambiguously clear that their being together would somehow help them control each other’s problems and everything would be all right in the end. It should have ended on a more uncertain-but-hopeful note, something that says “Look we’re both fucked-up people and we’ll always be that way for the rest of our lives. I don’t know if we’re going to work well together, but we’re at least going to try.” rather than “All you need is Love”.

          • Thomas Ricard

            I understand where you’re coming from. It is true that the film doesn’t go *too* much into the uglier, scarier side of bipolar disorder. Romantic comedy codes oblige, even the more painful scenes (such as Pat accidentally hitting his mum and getting into a fight with his dad during an episode) are softened. As someone who hasn’t had that personal experience, my commentary on its accuracy is limited. What made it special to me, and unusual for a Hollywood film, was how closely it paid attention to the flow of its characters’ moods and emotions, making the changes much less predictable than is usually the case in a genre as suffocated in structural red tape as the romantic comedy. Again I recommend “Minnie & Moskowitz” for both an unflinchingly honest look at the emotional minefield that is everyday life AND a brilliant deconstruction of romantic screwball comedy codes and conventions. While the characters don’t suffer from any obvious mental illnesses, they are frustrating, unpredictable and almost impossible to figure out; pain and happiness, laughter and fear all coexist within the same little moments, replacing each other at irregular intervals, catching you off-guard. Sometimes, it is in these little moments, those where nothing particularly exciting or dramatic seems to be happening, that life’s strongest experiences can be found. And while SLP doesn’t approach Minnie & Moskowitz’s greatness, it’s in its recreation of such moments (the dinner scene and the scene at the restaurant were good examples) that I found it to be at its most truthful.

    • Jack Slater

      Is there anything worse than white guys going off on message board tirades about how “western audiences” are SOOOO uncultured? Go look up how much money the Transformers movies made in China then tell us how sophisticated non-western audiences are

  • chachi

    Am I the only one who actually watched the last half hour of that shitty movie? The message was that dancing is important, and dancing is downright meaningful, and dancing can fix mental illness in shitty-movie land. Dancing could even bring world peace, if you’d just open your heart and let it.

  • Anonymous

    I have a co-worker at my workplace who is as obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys as Robert De Niro’s character in this movie is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Yes, I’m from Texas.