Friday Film Focus: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook — the exuberant movie from director David O. Russell — does pretty much everything right. Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) is curiously optimistic and confident. It’s a bit surprising — considering Pat is a man just released from the mental hospital, and also under a restraining order from his wife. Cooper’s character is determined to repair the damage he’s done to himself (and his relationships) by moving upward and onward, as seen by his motto: “Excelsior!” This film is an outright comedy, but like Pat, it’s a bipolar one that swings between emotional highs and intentionally painful lows.

At the top of Pat’s priority list is rebuilding his marriage with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). After they split, he caught her cheating…and proceeded to nearly beat her new boyfriend to death. After eight months in a mental institution — having shed fat and feeding on the philosophy of the film’s title — he feels ready to tackle the world. Trouble starts when peacemaker mom, Dolores (the wonderful Jacki Weaver), picks him up from the clinic. She’s joined by pal Danny (Chris Tucker) and husband Pat Sr. (a beautiful performance by Robert De Niro). Pat Sr. complains that his wife never told him she was springing their son out.

Dolores — with her big, compassionate eyes darting with panic — responds the only way a loving mother could: “It’s all under control.” Dolores is a caring and sane woman, and has much experience in dealing with compulsive behavior. Pat Sr. is a sports bookie possessing an obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. This is the only common bond he can share with his son. Pat Sr. has also been barred from the Eagles Stadium for violent outbursts. He now focuses on his TV set — convinced the Eagles will only win if he fulfills his several superstitions.

Pat’s struggle to get Nikki back serves as his fundamental quest. This motivating force gets him out of the house to exercise. Pat is often running around the neighborhood wearing a large plastic bag. He wears the bag in order to shed weight, but it’s also a metaphor for a life that has been outwardly trashed such as his. Pain is the subtext for nearly every altercation and interaction in this film. For the old man, it comes from the toll his obsessive-compulsive behavior takes on his family. For the son, it’s of course delusion.

Pat is constantly looking for a silver lining despite the fact Nikki has a restraining order against him. Even hearing their wedding song (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”) sets Pat off into a rage. Yet, he still thinks reconciliation is in the cards. To distract Paul from his fantasy, his best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) invites Pat to a dinner with the means of setting him up with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She is the sister of his bullying wife Veronica (Julia Stiles). The dinner ends up being an absolute disaster.

Interestingly enough, Pat and Tiffany speak their unfiltered minds in a flood of uncensored, authentic dialogue. They hit it off right away. Tiffany, a young widow, overcompensates for the death of her cop husband by having sex with anyone. A heartbreak beauty, she instantly disturbs Pat — giving him a fresh purpose in life.

She convinces Pat that she can pass a letter from him to Nikki. In return, she wants him to become her partner in a dance contest. As Tiffany and Pat begin rehearsing, the film deepens beautifully and then expands. They practice at a makeshift dance studio in the home she has built for herself (in her parents’ garage). She leads and he follows. Together and apart, and through awkward turns, they fall into each other’s arms with grace and resilience. As their relationship continues to blossom, Tiffany grows upset due to Pat’s obsession with his ex-wife. Russell has always played with the definition of family — pushing its boundaries with themes of humor, addiction, and insanity. He gives you a jagged film with a jolting spark working to continuously throw the audience off-balance.

Like almost all of his films, Silver Linings features a large cast that seems to grow in every single scene. When we first meet Pat, he’s alone in his room reading a Hemingway novel. As he nears the ridiculously wonderful ending, he’s fighting for space — crowded by his loving family and friends. Silver Linings Playbook waves and pleads for happiness. It’s both comical and at times pitiful. Above all, it also feels like an authorial declaration of sorts because it interlocks with Russell’s belief in wonderful, transporting cinema.

The world in Silver Linings looks different from the way it does in old screwball comedies. The movie doesn’t cheat into a happy ending. Tinged with shadows and ignited by the work of Lawrence and Cooper, this film raises the bar on romantic comedy. Only in Hollywood can mental illness be cured by a moonstruck fantasy. See it in the wrong mood, you may hate this film. But I have to say, it snuck past my defenses, and into my very core.

Image Source: Letterboxd