Here’s what’s special about David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook: it’s a romance, mental health story and family drama with a very high production value and A-list cast. Because of this, it’s up for eight Oscars and has won numerous accolades from critics. But despite a borderline cliche plot of man-obsessed-with-woman-meets-another-woman plot, its focus on mental issues and the flaws of all the characters separates it from films of similar ilk.
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital after 8 months of treatment and is obsessed with getting back to his wife Nikki. In the process, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow with her own share of behavioral issues. They strike a deal; she’ll help deliver a letter to Nikki if Pat dances with her in a couples freestyle competition. Meanwhile, his mother (Jacki Weaver) tries to get him back to normal in a doting (but much smarter than originally thought) way, and Pat, Sr. (Robert DeNiro) exhibits just as many issues as his son.
As one of the few films nominated for an Oscar in every acting category, the performances are the films greatest strength. Lawrence, 22, tricks audiences into viewing Tiffany as a character much older than she looks. It’s a welcome departure from her role as independent huntress, as established in her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone and reprised in this year’s blockbuster The Hunger Games. Cooper pulls what I’ve now dubbed a “Jonah Hill” by pleasantly surprising audiences by acting in a serious role that would have seemed impossible for the man who was nominated for a Razzie because of All About Steve.
But the character — and actor — who steals the show is Pat, Sr., the father of a mental patient with just as many psychological issues. Kicked out of Lincoln Financial Stadium because of all the fights he’s started with opposing fans, the Philadelphia-Eagles-obsessed father has OCD tendencies (he numbers the envelopes in his study and has to align the three remotes just the right way), compulsive gambling issues and is, as his son calls him, “the explosion guy.” Who better to play such a dynamic character than DeNiro?
Silver Linings‘ plot is pretty predictable, with an ending fitting for its genre and a twist that can be called pretty early on. What saves it from the mundanity of being another excellently-acted romance, however, is a script that catches viewers. What could be a mundane romance turns into an intriguing character study and realistic exhibition of mental illness. Even those without a frame of reference for bipolar disorder walk out of the theater with a better sense of the condition, a feat rarely accomplished by this genre of film. The way Pat speaks in run-on sentences filled with inappropriate material (“I don’t have a filter,” he reminds Tiffany) shows his manic thought process. Russell didn’t need Silver Linings to prove himself to be a good writer — 2010’s The Fighter did that — but this film shows that not only does he understand mental illness but also knows how to present it in a non-stereotypical way.
Music plays a major role in the both the story and production. Danny Elfman’s theme for the picture is a departure from his usual full-orchestra compositions as Tim Burton’s go-to composer. Instead, its simple funk conveys the working-class environment of the film and the intimacy of the story. The story utilizes Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” as Pat’s wedding song and the trigger for his violent outbursts. The cliche use of it as “my wedding song,” as Pat repeats throughout the film speaks volumes about his and Nikki’s relationship, even when they were in love and married. And, as a film with dance involved, the use of songs such as The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl“ and Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” in the final dance scene is anything but coincidental.
The Verdict: Silver Linings Playbook is a good movie, but not because of its plot. For those seeking a didn’t-see-that-coming movie, I would recommend something else from this year’s Oscar categories. For the rest of us obsessed with outstanding performances and witty scripts, it delivers. I expected more for all its hype, but this one’s good nonetheless.