You have to hand it to David O. Russell. Since his debut feature, Spanking the Monkey in 1994, he has steadily proven himself to be a worthy descendent of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. More than any other Hollywood filmmaker, Russell has demonstrated a facility with nutty situations, screwball energy, and eccentric characters, the kind of facility that recalls Sturges in his Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek heyday, the kind that approximates the manic farce of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot together with the acerbic wit and sentiment of The Apartment. Movies like Flirting with Disaster (my vote for Russell’s best movie), I Heart Huckabees, and his latest, Silver Linings Playbook all have the pace and hysterics to match Hollywood’s screwball tradition and no other filmmaker seems capable of sustaining a sense of sheer lunacy–that is, an edgy, barely contained craziness–over a feature-length movie without losing his audience. Yet, as entertainingly oddball as Playbook is, the movie derives much of its pleasure from its offbeat energy, soft-heartedness, and the roiling tensions that preoccupy its largely two-dimensional characters.
Insanity, or at least some degree of it, is all over this movie. Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solatano, just released from a mental institution after a violent episode that’s scared off his wife. He moves back in with his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, vows to clean up his act, and win back the affections of his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), who’s taken out a restraining order on him. Of course, Pat functions in a kind of manic delusional state, just as his father–as warm and genuine as he is in his love for Pat–is an obsessive-compulsive Eagles football fan whose life pivots on the outcomes of football Sundays. Because he can’t get to Nikki, Pat enlists the aid, however grudgingly, of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), one of her friends. Tiffany herself has more than her share of emotional issues; she’s struggling to put the grief and guilt over her husband’s death behind her. So she pours her energies into a dance competition and makes a deal with Pat: if he agrees to be her dance partner in the competition, she’ll cooperate in his attempts to win back his wife. Pat and Tiffany’s uneasy alliance warms to a mutually dependent friendship that, after some ups and downs, blossoms into, you guessed it, an old-time romance.
Five years ago, Mark Wahlberg–an actor who’s been featured in three of Russell’s movies–would have played Pat; the role of the off-kilter yet adorably sweet working-class misfit seems tailor-made for an earlier Wahlberg incarnation. Cooper gamely fills Wahlberg’s shoes here; his comic timing and intensity level matches that of his predecessor. And, as the volatile Tiffany, Lawrence is consistently watchable. De Niro and Weever nicely counterpoint each other with the latter serving as a kind of buffer for the neurotic excesses of the former. But, when all’s said and done, Silver Linings Playbook is as aggressively offbeat as it is aggressively by-the-numbers. This is a tried-and-true, paint-by-numbers rom-com whose adherence to convention is masked by Russell’s brand of anarchic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, so the story goes–what’s different this time around are the players and the twists in the path that lead us to the end. Russell doesn’t really offer a new take on family or interpersonal dynamics and we never feel that Pat, Tiffany, or anyone else here are particularly authentic human beings, just a collection of tics, oddities, and obsessions. But, for what it’s worth, Silver Linings Playbook is grounded in real heart–an embrace of such eternal virtues as true love, parent-child bonding, and self realization–and it delivers the kind of sharply timed laughs that Sturges and Wilder would’ve appreciated.
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Ker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, Brea Bee