I saw Silver Linings Playbook over a week ago and have been procrastinating saying anything about it because it’s tough to express my opinion without ruining the ending. I suppose the ads aren’t that coy about the gist of the film, but part of my enjoyment was derived from that rare feeling of having no idea what would happen next. Under the guidance of director David O. Russell (previously appreciated for The Fighter and Three Kings), I wasn’t sure if Playbook would be predictably atypical or deceptively Hollywood about the strange relationship between its May/December starring couple. Would it end in for-your-Oscar-consideration breakup and tears? Would it opt for the mushy happily-ever-after ending, complete with gratuitous dance party at the end? Would the payoff be just-good-friendship, like Lost in Translation? Would they both die horribly of movie cancer? My second-guessing was useless against it.
In some movies, the male lead’s objective would be to captivate the ladies in the audience and show them a man that puts their own significant other to shame. It’s my understanding that Bradley Cooper is not an eyesore, but his character, Pat, has recently been signed out from rehab after an eight-month stint for treatment of the “undiagnosed bipolar” condition that fueled a violent freakout. Free and energized by a relentless craving for positivity, Pat’s rat-a-tatting sentences cascade and collide as he struggles to voice every thought as it occurs, even if it’s tangled with other thoughts, contradicts still other thoughts, and lacks the mental filtering that allow the rest of us to coexist without scaring or worrying others. Though the ideal male would be all about communication, sometimes shutting up is the nobler road to travel, even if your grievances against A Farewell to Arms aren’t unfounded.
In the other corner, Jennifer Lawrence is supposed to be the woman that every guy forced to watch a romantic movie wants — someone for him to pay attention to while his date enjoys her chick-flick. The widow Tiffany, though, has spiraled off into a zone somewhere in the vicinity of nymphomania with an attitude that’s standoffish and intimidating, especially since she’s grown tired of the neighbors talking about her outrageous behavior, even when she’s standing right there. Male viewers usually don’t like it when the female lead looks as though she’ll cut you.
These two wayward souls meet-ugly as the result of a poorly conceived matchmaking attempt, but find common ground in their pharmaceutical experiences. Once the ice is broken: each finds that the other has something they want. Tiffany has direct access to Pat’s estranged wife, but Pat doesn’t because of a post-freakout restraining order. Desperate to show how he’s changed and their marriage is still valid, Pat needs Tiffany as a messenger to deliver the letter that will win her back. Tiffany exacts a steep price in return: she needs a partner for an upcoming dance contest. Pat can’t dance, but he’s a second person. For Tiffany’s purposes, that’s a good enough start.
The crux of the film is simple: can two off-kilter people, each with a psychological issue triggered by a specific event (both of them awfully tidy, as such triggers go — one of the more disappointing elements of the movie), set aside their abnormalities and work together toward their respective goals? Could they possibly help each other learn and grow along the way? Can they forgive each other their transgressions much as the audience will likely be expected to? After all, don’t we all go a little crazy sometimes?
Fielding that last rhetorical question is a strong supporting cast, some of whom helped Playbook to become the first film since 1981’s Reds to be nominated in all four Oscar acting categories. As Pat’s dad, Robert DeNiro is an OCD Philadelphia Eagles fan who has a specific system for his gambling, never watches without his lucky handkerchief, needs all his remotes lying and pointed just so, and has been barred from seeing his team live at Lincoln Financial Field because of past freakouts. Through pleading and occasional tears, DeNiro is at the most vulnerable I’ve ever witnessed him. A smartly cast Chris Tucker (remember him from the classic Rush Hour trilogy?) is Pat’s best rehab friend Danny, who’s not as ready for the outside world as he thinks he is; Pat’s successful big brother is sane as long as money-grubbing doesn’t count as a sickness; his non-ill best friend is slowly going over the edge in an unhappy marriage to a taciturn Julia Stiles; and even Pat’s Asian doctor leads a double life of sorts, wacky though it appears. The only steady rock in this gravel pit of unwellness is Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mom, centering everyone’s nerves and attention with her magical Sunday catering.
The dance lessons provide a quality-time framework where Tiffany can concentrate on something positive in her life, and Pat can be distracted enough to keep still. As their movements sync and the external challenges mount, their differences of age, temperament, and diagnosis fade while we watch the subtle healing process taking steps forward and backward, leading to a simultaneous climax involving the aforementioned dance contest, a pivotal Eagles game, and the kind of monumentally stupid bet that only ever succeeds in movies. Through all of it, whenever Pat isn’t yearning for the wife that obviously won’t be taking him back anytime soon, his infectious optimism remains the guiding force that points the way for every plot strand.
All told, regardless of its odd path, and despite some coarseness, Silver Linings Playbook is the best quasi-romantic film I’ve seen in theaters in years. It’s also one of this year’s most idealistic Best Picture nominees. If you’re headed to the theater in honor of V-Day and looking for something that puts the “happy” back in “happy couple”, this might be your best alternative, unless you think you’re up for sharing yet another date night with that blasted Nicholas Sparks.