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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.