What's that old equation? Tragedy plus time equals comedy?
Based on his career, filmmaker David O. Russell missed that math class. He has an open-season rule for just about anything, and it seems as though the more he can push the envelope, the more he tries to wring every last drop of absurdity out of things.
Incest ruled the day in his first film, Spanking the Monkey. And Nailed—a film that was never completed, because the money dried up—centered on a woman who developed deep sexual urges after being accidentally shot in the head with a nail gun. Now there's Silver Linings Playbook, which doesn't outwardly play bipolar disorder for laughs, but doesn't discourage those laughs, either.
Russell has not shied from controversy, and with a lesser filmmaker, the controversy would win. But Silver Linings Playbook is far and away the best, most-interesting and most-mercurial work in a very unusual, very individual career. As it is with many great films that are linked forever with their director, it's unlikely anybody else could have made this movie this way.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from an institution. Eight months earlier, he was happily married, or so he thought: Pat came home early to find his wife in the shower with another man, and the plea bargain from the beating he issued the other guy meant spending some time under supervision and on heavy meds. Now back home, Pat is trying to adjust to his life. He lives with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), and wakes up every day working toward some balance. Pat hates his condition, but not as much as he hates everything that goes along with it—the judgment, the drugs and the wild swings.
On his way back to normal, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She dealt with her recent emotional upheaval in a different way: After her husband died, Tiffany slept with everyone in her office. She's tough on Pat; he's not very nice to her; and you—like every other character in the movie—can see exactly where they're headed.
Because our lead characters aren't processing stimuli in the most straightforward manner, Silver Linings Playbook moves at an agitated pace. Dialogue races by; scenes are smashed together; and emotional states bounce around like kids on a trampoline. With a looser grip, Russell would have lost the movie, but there's something remarkably controlled about all of it—this chaos is intentional.
The deliberate pulse of the picture becomes more apparent as Pat and Tiffany grow closer. The more trust they establish, the more things start to slow down. It never feels or plays like a traditional classic Hollywood romance, but the waves don't crash with the same volatility after a while. Fittingly, these two frenetic souls are bound to each other through a dance competition, which not only develops more propinquity, but also keeps two kinetic characters in motion.
Mental illness, of course, is no laughing matter. Russell definitely walks a line here by presenting bipolar disorder so broadly. But he also trusts Pat (and Cooper) implicitly, which is a mark of a good director. Pat does not want to be defined by his diagnosis and takes its consequences in stride. If that means saying or doing the wrong thing, he'll live with it. So does the director. Sometimes those wrong things are funny, while others, which get nearly equal representation here, are heartbreaking.
If you love really good acting, you've come to the right place. There was a 20-year period in this country when Robert De Niro's onscreen dominance was indisputable. Then came everything after Casino. But Silver Linings Playbook gets De Niro back on solid ground. He's not playing a cop for a change; he's not overdoing it; and he's come at his supporting role with sage experience and youthful vigor, which he must have been keeping in storage all this time.
Bradley Cooper, on the other hand, has by and large not been taken seriously. Credit the limpid blue eyes and the mop-up duty he had in the stupendously successful Hangover movies. But ... the guy can act. And here, he acts his ass off. It's great work, and much like Russell's direction, it could go flying off the rails if he didn't know what he was doing. Cooper's all-over-the-road performance is actually the grounding influence on the film.
But it's Jennifer Lawrence (she of The Hunger Games) who you need to see. Only 21 when this was filmed, she's added an exclamation point to an extremely promising career. Put it this way: Hollywood producers hiring actresses younger than 30 not named Jennifer Lawrence are just throwing their money away. She has shown with Winter's Bone, Hunger Games and, now, Silver Linings Playbook exactly what an actress should be able to do. She's played dark drama, action and now Oscar-worthy human comedy with uncanny perfection. It just doesn't happen this easily, this suddenly, this often.
The perfect occasion to announce that she's here for keeps is Silver Linings Playbook, a film truly worth the attention and affection it's receiving.