If there’s one thing that we can all take from David O. Russell’s delightfully public recent breakdown, it’s that the guy probably knows a thing or two about mental illness. That theory is confirmed in Russell’s latest feature Silver Lining’s Playbook. As the title suggests, this is still Russell in “let’s play nice so that I can get my career back” mode much like The Fighter. But just like that bit of surprisingly decent awards bait fodder, David O. Russell with his subversion tied behind his back is still better than the usual crop of Oscar-begging filmmakers bringing their A game (I’m looking at you Stephen Daldry). Along with Flirting with Disaster or I Heart Huckabees the film falls into Russell’s career long quest to revive and reinvent the classic screwball comedy structure for contemporary audiences. While Silver Linings Playbook isn’t as tightly wound as Disaster or as experimental as Huckabees, it’s a satisfying crowd pleaser that actually feels like vintage O. Russell for the first hour. Granted, the final third slides slightly into the land of rom-com cliché, but like I said, the man is playing nice these days.
Bradley Cooper stars as a teacher who was recently confined to a mental institution following a violent outburst after discovering his wife in the midst of an affair with a colleague. He’s signed out of the hospital by his mother (Jacki Weaver) and handed a collection of colorful pills to take home with him, but he isn’t too into the medication thing. Instead he’s learned the powers of positive thinking and is convinced that a good attitude and a quick read through her English class syllabus will be enough to get back his wife. Given the restraining order and regular police surveillance, Cooper’s mother and father (Robert De Niro) aren’t so convinced. But he ends up meeting an attractive and equally mentally unbalanced young lady (Jennifer Lawrence) through friends and starts to see her during his regular garbage bag covered jogs (don’t ask). She offers to take a letter to Cooper’s ex-wife in exchange for him agreeing to be her partner in a dance competition. He agrees and the bumping and grinding seems to help stabilize Cooper’s issues and bring the two mentally ill lost souls together. Of course, things get complicated when Cooper’s dance commitments start to conflict with De Niro’s OCD Sunday football rituals. There’s plenty of crazy to go around in this family.
Ok, so maybe crazy is a bit harsh of a word to use for this film. If Silver Linings Playbook is about anything, it’s mental illness and (until the ending) Russell crafts one of the most honest representations of that condition ever seen in a Hollywood film. In Russell’s new comedy, everyone is mentally ill in their own unique way, some are just better at coping with their issues than others. It’s not a terrible representation of the world and for the first hour or so Russell’s wonderfully erratic, neurotic, and broken characters are a joy to watch. The film can be just as wild and unpredictable as the characters during this section and it can be deliriously entertaining. Those are the rhythms of a screwball comedy and the writer/director applies them to the story well. It’s as painfully funny, awkward, and volatile as his earlier work, but Russell gets away with it in a glossy studio product thanks to perfect casting and a sincere love for the characters. Their illness might make the characters behave in funny ways, but Russell and the cast are careful to never tip the balance and make the audience laugh at their misfortunes. We understand where all the characters and their problems come from and sympathize with them fully.
It’s clear watching the film that Russell is still using his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants improv shooting style and as always the actors bring their A game to survive. Cooper delivers easily his most nuanced work to date. The confident swagger of his Hangover persona isn’t anywhere to be seen in a character driven by pain and irrational goals. Far from a sadsack, Cooper takes on everything from mundane tasks to major life challenges with boundless energy and irrational confidence in a performance in some ways feels like an impression of his director. Jennifer Lawrence matches him in a dead on portrait of that broken bi-polar girl with too much eye-shadow and insatiable appetites that everyone has met at some point in their lives. Apparently Sarah Silverman was the runner up for the role and while it would have been fantastic (and age appropriate) for her to play the part, Lawrence’s presence probably helped secure financing and she drops one of her best performances to date.
The biggest miracle that Russell pulled off in Silver Linings Playbook was probably getting Robert De Niro to awaken from his decade-long acting slumber to actually deliver a genuine performance as Cooper’s father. De Niro plays it straight at first, but as the film wears on he painfully/hilariously reveals that he might be responsible for Cooper’s mental state both through heredity and a less-then-ideal upbringing. I could go on like this about everyone in the cast because Russell provided strong roles and a creative enough environment for everyone to thrive, but the two big stand outs are Jacki Weaver heartbreakingly mousey, quietly depressed turn as Cooper’s mother and Chris Tucker’s unexpected comeback performance as Cooper’s institutionalized buddy that serves as a reminder that Tucker can be a compellingly unpredictable screen presence when he puts in the effort
Unfortunately once the dance competition takes over the movie, things barrel towards a conventional ending. It fits with Russell’s screwball romantic comedy structure of choice, but also feels like a disappointing way to wrap up an unpredictable movie that cheapens the depiction of mental illness by suggesting that love is the most stabilizing med of all. Of course, that’s exactly what will make the film a success at the box office and it’s probably the main reason why he was able to make the flick at all. Russell might be curbing to the mainstream again, but at least he’s gradually moving back to where he was and Silver Linings Playbook feels more reminiscent of his style than The Fighter. Hopefully the director will be able to use the success of the two movies to go back to his more unconventional work, but there is a chance that we may never see the Three Kings version of the writer/director again. He has found a comfortable mix between his obsessions and the demands of mainstream audiences and with rumors of him taking on blockbuster franchises like Uncharted, it seems like Russell will be sticking to this tone for the time being. At least it’s better than Gary Marshall making a comedy about mental illness.