starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jackie Weaver, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles
written by: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel)
directed by: David O. Russell
MPAA: Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity
The secret of Silver Linings Playbook‘s true genre identity sneaks up slowly, pulling off an almost Shyamalanesque bait-and-switch with the audience’s expectations as it progresses. It emerged triumphantly from the festival circuit as a buzzy Oscar contender; just this Wednesday the Weinstein Company pulled an Oscar-minded switcheroo with their distribution plan, canceling the wide release they’d scheduled for Thanksgiving in favor of a slower prestige/word-of-mouth rollout. And as the film begins, we have every reason to think we’re watching the kind of bold, spiky, adventurously acted drama for which director David O. Russell has become known (his last film was The Fighter, which won Oscars for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo). And while it initially meets our expectations, it gradually becomes a different film entirely.
When we first meet Pat (Bradley Cooper), he is about to be released from a court-ordered stay in a mental institution. He’s there because of an incident in which he walked in on his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), cheating with one of his coworkers in their home, went berserk, and beat his coworker nearly to death. But Pat is now feeling much more optimistic; he’s lost weight, embraced a philosophy of finding the silver lining in everything, and eagerly anticipates resuming his married life with Nikki (once she lifts the restraining order). But Pat is not exactly well. Despite having been diagnosed as bipolar following his hospitalization, he refuses to take his meds, and generally comes across as a delusional loose cannon with zero self-awareness.
Following his release, Pat moves back in with his working-class Philadelphia parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver, serving Edith Bunker realness). Pat’s father is a major trigger for him, not to mention a root for much of his neuroses; Pat Sr. shares his son’s volatile temperament and dependence on superstitious thinking, as well as what Pat suspects is an undiagnosed case of OCD. Meanwhile, Pat Sr. and Dolores are justifiably terrified that Pat is going to violate his restraining order to see Nikki, and they watch in agonized frustration as he deals with violent mood swings and tantrums. But when Pat reconnects with his old friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his ball-busting wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) in an attempt to get to Nikki, he is instead introduced to Veronica’s sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).
In some ways, Tiffany is the female version of Pat. After being widowed when her cop husband was killed, Tiffany began wearing all black and acting out sexually. She was diagnosed with depression and put on many of the same meds as Pat, with whom she shares a distaste for taking them. Like Pat, she has no filter and poor social graces, and like Pat, she still wears her wedding ring despite no longer having a relationship with her spouse. But unlike Pat, she has self-awareness. She knows how she comes across, and she sees Pat exactly as he is. Pat, on the other hand, thinks of himself as perfectly healthy and Tiffany as appallingly batshit. It is exhilarating watching these two abrasive characters treat one another indelicately and impolitely; their interactions recall the kind of hard-edged social comedy Russell excelled at in films like Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees.
While Tiffany regards Pat with fond if weary bemusement, he sees her simply as a means of contacting Nikki. Tiffany embraces this role by offering to pass Nikki a letter from Pat, but on one condition: he has to enter a dance competition with her. Her deceased husband always refused to join her, so now she fully intends to exploit her leverage with Pat. And with this plot development, the film makes its first allusion to the kind of movie it actually is rather than the movie it first appeared to be. While the first act is an edgy, occasionally explosive character drama about mental illness and family dysfunction, the second act (following Pat’s first meet-cute with Tiffany) makes an abrupt turn toward contrivance with the dance competition development. It is the film’s first hollow moment. And, sadly, it only gets more false from there. The film’s theme of superstitiously gambling on positivity snaps from abstract to hugely concrete, an epic third-act climax is set up, and suddenly we realize all at once what we’re watching: this is not an edgy Oscar-bait drama. It’s just an uncommonly pathos-fueled romantic comedy.
What a conundrum this creates for the Weinsteins. Marketing Silver Linings Playbook as a rom-com will certainly be a more lucrative box office approach than selling it as an awards-season darling. But conversely, when’s the last time a romantic comedy was considered a serious Oscar contender? Sure, As Good As It Gets and Shakespeare in Love cleaned up in the late ’90s, but rom-coms have come to signify something much smarmier and less aspirational over the years. So which will it be? Presumably a bit of both. It is not far-fetched to suggest, particularly in this rather weak awards season, that Silver Linings Playbook could become one of the most nominated films of the year. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Weaver), and Best Adapted Screenplay nods are all well within its reach.
Egregious plot contrivances aside, this is a marvelously performed film. Bradley Cooper gives the performance of a lifetime as Pat. He will surprise and shock you; this is a juicy role and Cooper does not disappoint with it. As Tiffany, Jennifer Lawrence bookends her year of total movie domination with arguably her finest performance yet. Many awards season oddsmakers have her squarely in the lead for Best Actress, which would be quite a finale for a year that began with The Hunger Games. As good as Lawrence is, it’s also just a weak year for her category; barring any last-minute dark horse surges (respected and overdue Naomi Watts in The Impossible? fellow ingenue breakout Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty?), it does seem like Lawrence’s to lose.
De Niro turns in one of his most nuanced and effecting performances in recent years; for a legendary performer constantly verging on self-parody, it’s always refreshing to see he can still underplay. Beyond just channeling Maureen Stapleton, Weaver is expertly funny and poignant. And perhaps most excitingly, we get a fun little triad of faded late-’90s character actors in supporting roles: Julia Stiles, Dash Mihok, and even Chris Tucker. Hi guys! Missed you! Hey Dash, remember when you dated Alanis? I do.
Silver Linings Playbook is still a pleasurable and highly entertaining comedy, and I wouldn’t be mad if it had just begun and ended as the same film. Instead, it ends as a considerably less inspired and effective film than the one it started as. After taking its first half exquisitely bringing these vibrant and riveting characters to life, it buckles by letting them get sucked into the gears of a lumbering, plodding plot device. It is bizarrely backwards in its insistence on becoming more formulaic and less original as it progresses, rather than starting with a formula and cleverly subverting it. It allows us to laugh at the foolishness of Pat throwing a tantrum because A Farewell to Arms doesn’t have a happy ending, but ultimately gives in to his petulant demands.
Silver Linings Playbook opens today in San Francisco.