David O. Russell was an amazingly exciting talent when he first emerged in the late 90s with films like Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings. He was a sort of wunderkind bad boy who was able to inject his films with a lot of energy and spunk. However, that bad boy image caught up with him eventually and it was beginning to look like he’d burned down so many bridges that it would be hard for him to get anymore work. Fortunately he made a big comeback with 2010s The Fighter, a film which was made without scandal, scored big at the box office, was reviewed solidly, and which also garnered seven Oscar nominations. I was really happy to see Russell back on top of the filmmaking world, but my joy was undercut by my own middling reaction to The Fighter itself. To me, The Fighter was Russell Lite. It was a film which, under its mildly gritty exterior, was way too close to being a standard formulaic Disney sports movie for comfort. I was more than a little worried that Russell would go further into blandness with his most recent movie, The Silver Linings Playbook, but I’m happy to report that film is not only much better than The Fighter but also much one of the best films of the year.
Bradley Cooper (of all people) stars as Pat Solitano, a man who suffered a breakdown a few years prior to the start of the film and who is now returning home after a stay at a mental care facility. The catalyst for his breakdown was the discovery that his wife had been unfaithful to him and it was later discovered that it was largely the result of an underlying bi-polar condition that he’d been suffering from all his life without knowing it. His wife now wants nothing to do with him after he physically attacked the man his wife had been cheating with, and has ordered a restraining order against him. For now he’d moved back in with his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), and he plans to regain his composure through a lot of positive thinking. However, he remains fixated on his estranged spouse to the point that when he meets an acquaintance of hers named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), all he can think to do is use her in order to relay a letter to his wife. Tiffany is also suffering from emotional distress, which is brought on by the death of her husband, and knows that Pat’s obsession with his wife is hopeless but she connects with him anyway because she knows that together they might be able to overcome their demons.
Bradley Cooper is an actor that I’ve mostly hated in almost every other movie I’ve seen him in. I’ve always gotten a douche frat-boy vibe from him, especially in the The Hangover series where he comes off like some sort of Dane Cook impersonator. But like he did with Mark Whalberg before him, David O. Russell manages to skew Cooper’s more annoying tendencies and somehow manages to turn him into a very likable personality here. This is in part because Cooper’s character is in a genuinely sympathetic place and is generally upbeat and well meaning even when he does things that are kind of chaotic. The character’s condition makes him generally hyper (there’s a lot of manic in the film and very little depressiveness) and leaves him without any filter when he speaks to people. Anyone who’s seen the Youtube videos of David O. Russell on the set of I Heart Huckabees can probably understand how the director could relate to such a character and it’s this ability to make the audience relate to them as well which allows the film to laugh along at some of Pat’s manic behavior.
Jennifer Lawrence also creates an interesting character which seems like a real departure from the dower characters that she played in films like Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Admittedly the character could be pegged as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” but that trope feels a lot more natural here firstly because it’s in more of a blue-collar environment than most films with that character type and secondly because the “manic” part is a literal symptom of a mental condition which the male lead also displays. Were this a film which made Bi-polar disorder the defining characteristic of Pat and Tiffany, its comedy might be considered kind of offensive, but Russell expertly side-steps this by making both characters people first and Bi-Polar sufferers second.
One aspect of The Fighter that Russell has wisely brought over to this film is a fascination with nutty blue-collar northeastern families. The family in this film lives in Philadelphia rather than Boston, and they have a similar kind of comedic dysfunctionality, but it never feels like its copying what was seen in the previous film so much as refining it. Russell has also built upon the visual style he established with The Fighter. He’s still relatively restrained compared to the extreme visual experimentation he showed in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees but he does seem to have opened up a great deal and has once again injected his filmmaking with a lot of energy. In general, The Fighter feels like a mere audition for what he’s done with this film and he’s found a really nice medium between the stylistic excess of his early work and The Fighter’s relatively restrained style.
Many people will likely go to great lengths to distance the film from the “romantic comedy” genre, and I don’t blame them for wanting to do so, but the truth of the matter is that this is a romantic comedy. However, it is not one of those bland and formulaic date movies that the Jennifer Anistons of the world star in and push out on a seemingly weekly basis that have become synonymous with that genre. This is in many ways an example of what the romantic comedy can and should be when it’s being made by a filmmaker who gives a damn about making something memorable and interesting. One could say that The Fighter did the same thing with the sports movie, but I think that The Silver Linings Playbook takes it a step further and manages to subvert its genre’s tropes more often than Russell’s previous film did. There are points of the film, such as its slightly contrived finale, which do get a little dangerously close to some of the genre’s cheesier elements, but by the time that happened I was too invested in the movie to care. The movie probably won’t click in the same way for everybody, but for the most part this is a genuine crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term.
**** out of Four