In Silver Linings Playbook, impossibly good-looking people are damaged and dysfunction, and they speak a specific language that only those occupied with equal types of delusion can understand.
Directed by David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees; last year’s The Fighter), Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper (the disheveled heartthrob from The Hangover) as Pat Solatano, who returns home after spending almost a year at a mental institution following a breakdown that costs him his job, his house and his wife. Pat is determined to make peace with loosing the former, but is dedicated to the later, trying to revamp his life in an effort to win his wife back, moving back home with his mother (Jacki Weaver) and father (Robert De Niro) in the process. When Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a mysterious girl with her own set of problems and an equally sordid history, his devotion to his wife and rehabilitation is complicated.
O. Russell has made a name for himself as an actor’s director, always getting the best performances from his troupe, even when his work fails to hit the high notes that we expect or that he predicts. Silver Linings Playbook operates the very same way, with a tone that fluctuates just as often as Pat’s moods. One storyline leads into the other, but rarely do they backtrack and connect successfully. The film feels fluid (though its two-hour running time could stand to be shaved down a bit), and it never feels like it drags. Yet the storylines never coalesce in a way that feels a seamless as it needs to.
When Lawrence’s Tiffany comes into the picture, her role is immediately revealed: she’s Pat’s guide to the world not of the normal, but of the nominally sane. And for her to scratch his back—serving as a middleman and giving a letter from Pat to his estranged wife—he has to scratch hers, which involves an elaborate dance competition that the two must practice for for weeks on end. This allows for quality montages, and a wonderful series of close-ups on Cooper and Lawrence, both happier on screen than we in the audience, but the dance never connects. We never access the larger role that such a large chunk of story plays. When the third act comes around, the dance competition’s context changes, and there is suddenly more at stake than just a trophy. The storyline moves, but never progressed; evolved, but never naturally.
Furthermore, characters are given more to do in theory than in practice. De Niro (long since settling comfortably into playing a version of himself) plays Pat’s father as an obsessive compulsive in denial over his own sickness. It’s hinted that this may have something to do with his anxiety over his son’s breakdown; such implications are never solidified. That thread thus becomes nothing more than a sketch disguised as backstory.
Yet where the characters feel undeveloped, the performers inhabiting them feel fully formed. Bradley Cooper infuses Pat’s neurosis with bits of genuine nuance, moments in which he disappears not into the character, but into the figment of a person that Pat is trying to be—into the type of person he’s fooling his parents into thinking he’s become. And Lawrence’s Tiffany is more than just a troubled love interest, and she brilliantly underplays the type of character acting that has birthed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl moniker. She isn’t a free spirit who is only written with the singular intention of bringing Cooper’s Pat back to life. She isn’t defined by her quirk; she struggles to escape it.
Silver Linings Playbook is far from perfect; it’s not even especially good. It does, however, serve as a silhouette of a better film—one in which the talented actors that have been assembled (Lawrence, in particular, gets a lot to do here) are given work worthy of theirs. They seem to see more in the characters than we’re able to, and they’re the ones who are supposed to be diagnosably insane. Go figure.
– Rod Bastanmehr for The Untitled Magazine