Sometimes, we confuse the narrative as the end-all be-all of films, when in fact it’s just another factor. Some films barely need one, and can (and should) be carried on the strength of its other elements. Silver Linings Playbook is one of those films, and with a hurried attempt near the end to formulate a narrative, it almost undoes itself. Almost.
Before we get there, let’s talk about the (numerous) great things about the film. Silver Linings Playbook is a new romantic comedy from David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter) that deals with a developing relationship two young adults struggling with severe mental illness - Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) - and their recovery through each other to help come to grips with themselves and the ending of their marriages.
I’d tell you why they meet in the first place or even how this develops, but it really does not matter. This film (at least for the first 90 minutes) is simply a vehicle for a fantastic cast giving a sensitive and raw depiction of mental illness - and how it is really a part of all of us.
Cooper and Lawrence absolutely make the film, giving one of the strongest lead pairing performances we’ve seen in years. Both of them show an uncanny ability to switch between dully medicated and frantically manic in an instant. In particular, it was Cooper who surprised me - after Winter’s Bone, it was clear Lawrence was one of the top young actresses working today. Known mostly for raunchy comedies, chick-flicks and silly action movies, Cooper took a big role with a lot of room to work with and absolutely filled it out. Both of them should be contenders for lead performance come Oscar time, and they truly carry the film (there’s a particular scene where the two are eating in a diner, and Cooper and Lawrence somehow manage to have a conversation in which they convey calmness, sadness, comfortability and madness all with a sexual undertone in the space of about two minutes).
Silver Linings also gets excellent performances from Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver, who play Cooper’s parents. After an Oscar nomination for Animal Kingdom, Weaver is perfect as the caring mother who is just trying to understand what’s going on with her son. It’s DeNiro’s best film in well over a decade (which says a lot more about his recent filmography than anything else), and is perfect as the stubborn father with his own (untreated) mental issues who just simply can’t get why his son won’t shape up. In a particularly touching aspect of the film, DeNiro spends much of his time desperately trying to get Cooper to watch the home-town Eagles with him, and it becomes clear that it’s the only way he knows how to try and spend time with his son. This moment is nearly ruined when Russell has DeNiro’s character say so (just to hammer the point home if we didn’t get it), but again, the performance and chemistry between the actors makes the (minor) transgression instantly forgivable.
Add in John Ortiz and Julia Stiles as Cooper’s friend and Lawrence’s sister and you have a great cast that brings in a lot of depth. If Russell had stopped there, it would have been more than enough. However, he then decides to bring in Cooper’s brother, another friend (who happens to be Chris Tucker), and his therapist (who exists in the narrative solely to provide plot fodder, and then inexplicably ends up constantly at his house). All of these characters seem randomly thrown in, giving an emotionally packed film a sudden feeling of claustrophobia.
If the film ended about 80 minutes through, it would be a candidate for the best American film made this year. With outstanding acting, an easily flowing story and a subtle (yet important and clear) message, it even outdoes Huckabees. However, the need for narrative and motivation is abruptly thrown into the picture, giving us a scrambled sense of forced cohesion.
The last 40 minutes is woefully regressive back to particular forms and tropes in the romantic comedy and (strangely enough) sports film genres, to the point where the film simply became hard to watch. This is something Russell successfully avoids through the first three quarters of the film thanks to the general unpredictability of his characters and his willingness to not do too much, but it all falls apart in the latter portion of the film.
It’s an extremely strange moment in the film, because it’s entirely out of place (and I won’t spoil anything by revealing it). But after making 80 minutes of a smart, unconventional romantic comedy, it almost seemed like someone else took over for Russell - someone who “knows” what mainstream Hollywood audiences want, when this is a film that mainstream Hollywood audiences are not going to see. The film then becomes a funny, quirky, genuinely sweet film that becomes overpowered by its own want of mass appeal.
Grade: B. Although Russell goes over the top a few times with his message of “aren’t we all a little crazy?”, Silver Linings Playbook is a fantastic romantic comedy with an outstanding cast. The hurried (manufactured) need for a narrative near the end of the film leaves you with a sour taste, but the earlier parts are good enough to overcome that.