Films We’ve Watched: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

4 Dec

I never thought I would say this, but Bradley Cooper deserves an Oscar. As a friend rightly pointed out, it’s not as though he’s had the most stellar career. Sure he proved he was charming in The Hangover and that he could play an asshole in Wedding Crashers, and Bradley-Cooper-the-action-star was serviceable in The A-Team, but it was hard to escape the feeling that he wasn’t really trying. At the very least it was hard to see the same Bradley Cooper who graduated with honors from Georgetown University, with a BA in English.


And yet, somehow Mr. Cooper has landed himself in Silver Linings Playbook, the latest film from the wonderful David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter). I just have to say it again: Who would have thought? Because Cooper’s role is far from expected given his credentials. His character, Pat Solitano has just been released from an institution after eight months of treatment. The reason for his incarceration is slowly doled out over the first half of the film, as the audience discovers that Pat was suffering from an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder that culminated in his assault on his wife’s lover.

Opposite Cooper is Jennifer Lawrence in her best role since Winter’s Bone. It’s actually hard to think that this is the same Jennifer Lawrence who starred in The Hunger Games earlier this year, or X-Men: First Class last Summer. I guess it’d be easy to say she’s grown, but that too doesn’t do her performance justice. Playing the role of Tammy Maxwell, Lawrence manages to convey this bizarre manic intensity, literally going from crying on Pat’s shoulder one second to hitting him in the face the next.


The cast is rounded out by Robert De Niro who also delivers what is undoubtedly his best performance in years (New Year’s Eve? Limitless? Little Fockers? Anyone?) as Philadelphia Eagle’s loving, OCD suffering, bookkeeping father. Perhaps this might be the time to point out one of the prevailing themes throughout all of David O. Russell’s films, although especially on display here: Everybody is crazy. Each of the characters that inhabit Silver Linings is suffering through their own mental crisis, be it the best friend trapped in a loveless and seemingly emotionally abusive relationship, the big brother feeling the pressure of the corporate rat race, or the lying mother who is just trying to hold everybody together, O. Russell lays everything out there, including some scenes that are simply hard to watch as each of these personalities collides.

After leaving the theatre one of my friends turned to me and said, “I hate romantic comedies. They’re so predictable!”, yet I couldn’t help but think, “Was this a romantic comedy?”. I mean sure, it follows the familiar trappings of the genre. There is the undeniable chemistry, the attraction, the opening up, a big fight, reconciliation, I’m sure most people by now can coherently plot out the course that most romantic comedies take. Yet compared to the only other romantic comedy I’ve seen this year, The Five Year Engagement (which was far from terrible), I’d be hard pressed to name anything other than structural similarities. The dramatic moments that arise provide far more interesting fodder than the comedic ones.


The most remarkable thing is that at the end, you feel that these are real people suffering from real problems. I would say this is a rare feat out of a studio picture today. Choosing to center a film around a bipolar man, a risky enough endeavor as it is, but here the whole movie plays out much like Pat’s own behavior. One second everything is calm and collected, even charming, only to, without much warning, descend into this, where everything just goes to hell, which is certainly more true to reality than most films out this year.

Much like the characters he is directing on screen, O. Russell’s films manage to portray a sort of picturesque, ubiquitous pleasantness that belies the psychological turmoil that is roiling away beneath. This pleasantness is exactly what Silver Linings is striving against. Pat and Tammy are abrasive, they are mean, selfish, but in the context of the film, they are far more real than everybody else around them. At one point Pat stands up to his family, who is busy calling Tammy crazy and points out, “You know what? I’m crazy too… But maybe it’s just that we know something you don’t.” Accepting your flaws and trying to be better, instead of simply closing your eyes and hoping everything works out, this so much more descriptive than labeling Silver Linings just another “rom-com”.


Much as he did with The Fighter, which on the surface was simply another sports story about an underdog finally triumphing, O. Russell manages to tease out something simply more from what is such a tired genre. While it does play the part of a romantic comedy, calling Silver Linings Playbook one is underselling it. The family drama that occupies much of the film, the secret neurosis that we all harbor and are too afraid to acknowledge, the process of grieving and recovering from a great loss, these are O. Russell’s true interest, not simply rehashing the same worn cliches we have seen for years and years (I maintain there will never be a romantic comedy as great as When Harry Met Sally, which is going on 23 years now). O. Russell manages to use our own preconceived notions of what this type of movie is supposed to be like, the implicit sympathy we are willing to give what we perceive to be characters who love each other and just don’t know it,  to then pull you along on this journey. It’s a tough one, fraught as it is with having to confront your own demons even as the characters do theirs, full of fights and scrapes and heartbreak but ultimately he has succeeding in making one of the most daring and without a doubt best movies of the year.

 – Nico


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