(This review was originally published online by The Cine-Files.)
“This is what I believe to be true: If you stay positive, then you have a shot at a silver lining,” or so claims Pat, the bi-polar and emotionally unstable protagonist in David O. Russell’s newest effort, Silver Linings Playbook. Thanks for the thesis statement, Pat. It is on this foundation that Russell builds his film of love found, familial generations tested, and rambunctious mental illness. The issue is not that positivity is a bad thing; it’s just that Russell wants his audience to believe that positivity must inherently end in a dance contest and kissing in the streets.
The film played to a packed theater on the opening night of the 15th Annual Savannah Film Festival, and the decision to showcase this dolled-up rom-com as the festival’s first film became increasingly apparent as the audience screamed with delight at nearly every frame of the film, even cheering enthusiastically during the film’s climax. The film does, after all, have all the markings of a crowd-pleaser, including Bradley Cooper as the perfectly flawed, yet charming, leading man and Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from her turn in that worldwide sensation, The Hunger Games. There’s a quirky family. Football. Laughs. Love and ballroom dancing. Even Chris Tucker cashes in an amusing performance after a five-year hiatus from the screen. Early reviews praised the film as a smart and sassy romantic drama, and if all of these ingredients weren’t enough to cook up a tasty awards season casserole, Silver Linings Playbook has already racked up a handful of festival awards for audience favorite. With all of that precocious weight behind it, expectations were high. Unfortunately, the film rarely met them.
The first two acts of the film play in typical Russell fashion. Opening with Pat’s release from a court-ordered stint in a mental institution, Russell quickly creates sympathy for his battered pariah. Never mind that Bradley Cooper looks like he stepped right off the pages of GQ—he’s a real outcast. What unfolds is the very likely/unlikely pairing of Pat and Tiffany, a recently widowed young woman who has been sleeping her way around town in a slash-and-burn campaign to mourn her dead husband. Whatever flaws may befall the film, Jennifer Lawrence is joyous to watch and deserves all the praise she’s received for the role. She hasn’t been this good since Winter’s Bone. Unfortunately, Russell never allows her enough narrative room for sincere character exploration. In an offensive and misinformed move, Russell, who also adapted the film’s screenplay, makes Tiffany a wounded woman whose true remedy for happiness can only be the love of a man. This is the film’s most inexcusable crime. Yes, she might enjoy moments of spunk and individuality, but Russell only plays them for comedic effect and never lets us mine the depths of Tiffany’s spiky exterior. Russell is more interested in viewing the world through Pat’s eyes (and, thus, his own) than giving equal weight to Tiffany’s character.
Russell’s trademark visual style, perfected in The Fighter, is revisited here, but with much less potency. The camera movement is odd and unmotivated, pushing in on Pat’s face at severely non-dramatic moments and circling around characters a full 360 degrees for no apparent reason. It gives the film an uninformed immediacy that the narrative, a semi-sprawling tale of white woes, just doesn’t support. Russell’s most impressive visual constructions in the film are also its best sequences. There are at least two scenes in the film when Pat is on the verge of mental collapse. One takes place in his parents’ attic when Pat is searching frantically for his wedding tape, and another occurs when Tiffany begins screaming that Pat is accosting her on a crowded sidewalk. For both scenes, Russell uses an extremely wide lens and a jarring handheld camera to create an experience both visceral and trippy, putting his audience behind Pat’s eyes. These two sequences, and my favorite parts of the film, show Russell toying with convention and experimenting as a filmmaker outside typical Hollywood boundaries. It was a reminder of why he holds an important place in the contemporary canon during a film where I needed one.
Russell’s most notable decision, and the most exciting for cinephiles, is his casting of Robert De Niro as Pat’s bookie father, Pat Sr. This performance is arguably De Niro’s best in at least a decade. His comedic work is the best in the film, and for the first time in many years, he is not just playing a caricature of his younger self. One of the better scenes of the film finds Pat Sr. confronting his son the morning after the pair have a physical confrontation. De Niro, with tears in his eyes, finds gravity and grit, confessing to Pat that he loves him and wants him to get better. For all the corny fluff Russell pulls on us in the film, this scene is actually moving, and it’s De Niro who does the heavy lifting.
Maybe if Russell had ended the film just when it gains momentum—with the extended scene where Pat Sr. places a double or nothing bet on his son’s dance contest score—he would have been better served. Instead, Russell seems determined to wrap things up neatly without a hint of forewarning. The final third of the film gets thrown in with little structural setup and massive amounts of contrivance. It seems that Russell was more preoccupied with secondary narratives (Pat’s brother, Chris Tucker’s character, Pat’s married friends, the therapy sessions) than with an appropriate, believable ending. Silver Linings Playbook may be hopeful and reaching for sweetness, but ultimately, the film fails to satisfy in the moments where it counts, and the drama that is promised in its early and most effective scenes plays second fiddle to a beaten-to-death love story that is ice-thin and manufactured.