It might be worth noting that I knew little-to-nothing about this film upon entering it. I knew Bradley Cooper was in it, it had something to do with dance, and it was directed by David O. Russell, coming off of The Fighter, mind you. I knew so little in fact, I kept expecting Zoe Saldana’s character to enter the film. But apparently, she’s in a different movie called The Words, also with the serious Mr. Cooper. The point being, I had no idea the film was about a character with mental illness, but the film itself seems to have completely forgotten by its second half anyway. So if you’re one of those who gets turned off by mental illness, it’s not your thing, it’s just not cool, well then Silver Linings Playbook is the film for you!
The film opens with Pat (Cooper) exiting from an institution for the mentally ill and returns to live at his parents house. For a good while, the dialogue about his situation annoyingly circumvents the “why” and “what happened” questions. Annoying because of the transparent cat-and-mouse game I feel pulled into that purposely denies the audience exposition. Eventually, through a somewhat contrived therapy scene, we find out Pat has bi-polar disorder and he was institutionalized after severely beating the man his wife was sleeping with.
This mental illness informs Russell’s filmmaking; Pat’s mood swings, agitation, inarticulation, and unassured positivity is captured with claustrophobic close ups and quick cuts that mirror his inner state. I would completely understand if people had problems with this type of filmmaking caricaturing bi-polar disorder, I haven’t heard that as of yet, but it seems appropriate specifically for Pat’s character.
The main conceit of the film develops once Pat becomes closely acquainted with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the sister of Pat’s wife’s best friend (sounds exhausting, I know). She’s a recent widow who’s been on a self destructive streak and finds therapy in dance. Long story short, they can help each other: he can be her dance partner, and she can be the concierge between him and his wife, due to the restraining order his wife has in place.
What Silver Linings Playbook does well in its first half, is create a world that acknowledges mental illness with idiosyncratic verisimilitude. Most poignantly, the film captures the uneasiness felt by friends and family who don’t quite know how to deal with people diagnosed with things like bi-polar disorder. Adjacent to that, we have Tiffany, who battles with depression, and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) who admits to having OCD. Once again, it’s the acknowledgement of these mental illnesses, and the seeming objective of the film to capture the ubiquity of mental illness that draws interest in the film’s first half.
Then comes the second half. I’d say this is somewhere soon after the pleasant montage set to Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash duet. From about there onward, most every positive aspect the film has built is swiftly diffused. The maverick version of David O. Russell turns into the director of The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook goes full-on rom-com. The witty dialogue and tense comedy turns into farcical and physical humor. The verisimilitude turns into complete implausibility where peripheral characters end up in scenes out of nowhere (i.e. Chris Tucker, the policeman, and the therapist).
Perhaps most disappointingly, the film becomes completely uninterested in mental illness. A couple mentions of medication and it seems a non-issue for the film, as if to get all that difficult stuff out of the way so we can enjoy regular, non-complex love. Remarkably, Cooper’s character is wiped clean of any semblance of inner struggle and the alienation he once felt has now disappeared with it. Of course, the counter argument will be that love cured the illness, but that is far too simple an explanation and not one I, personally, can accept. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t deal with understanding and accepting mental illness in each other, instead, it feels like a garnish. Likewise, Pat Sr.’s aforementioned obsessive-compulsive disorder ends up being nothing more than a representation of the most superficial symptoms of the disorder, and is equated with a mere proclivity for superstition.
The film’s climax is a dance competition where every plot of the story collides. Russell orchestrates the scene with an impressive Hitchcockian attention to creating suspense. It’s quite fun, but at the same time, I found myself questioning why the film has become consumed with all of these plots and sub-plots that finally detract completely from Pat’s mental illness.
The story of director David O. Russell has become quite upsetting. After a swift build up of strong films culminating with the dexterously humorous and thought provoking Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s films have assimilated to the humdrum conventions of “Oscar bait” with the R-Rated version of a Disney come-up story (think Invincible) in The Fighter and now this, a romantic comedy that concerns itself superficially with bigger issues to assist in hammering home all of its “heart.” I think it’s safe now to diagnose his career as assuredly having jumped the shark.