Before American Hustle was David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, a rom-com-drama about life, love, loss and mental illness. Russell’s messy, semi-improv style, coarse script and star casting hides an immortal 1940’s plot-line, a will-they, won’t-they romance with added dance competition and anti-depressants.
With it’s feel-good title, oddball hero, kookie leading lady, a football game, a dance event, and a Bridget Jones chase through festive, snowy streets at Christmas, Silver Linings Playbook reveals itself a conventional rom-com-drama.
Fortunately Jennifer Lawrence(Hunger Games) is the lightning spark that energises this muddled but enjoyable ‘romp’…
So why did it make me feel so uncomfortable for so much of the running time? Is it Russell’s attempt to make modern screwball cinema (after his own grand failure I Heart Huckabees)? It has plenty of nervous energy, but no, that’s not it.
Is it Lawrence’s young widow, Tiffany, getting a raw deal as the leading female character, a potty-mouthed, manipulative, nymphomaniac non-conformist who goes out of her way to be disliked? She’s tough, but vulnerable. No, it’s not that. Although why, with her depression, is she in the market for a relationship with blunt, judgemental, abusive, rambling headcase, Pat (Bradley Cooper – Guardians of the Galaxy)?
It’s not Robert De Niro either, whom I have never regarded as a great comic actor (even in Analyse This, That and the Other, or ‘The Sopranos-Lite’); with the exception of his transvestite pirate in Stardust, De Niro is always a threatening heavyweight. Just so here, as Pat Solitano Senior, an OCD sports fan with a gambling habit tolerated far too easily by wife Delores (the brilliantly light-touch Jacki Weaver).
It’s not the demented (if unusually restrained) Chris Tucker, as a recovering mental patient who tries to scene steal in his unnecessary cameo. It’s not the wacky Indian psychiatrist or wacky local cop.
Is it Pat Solitano Junior (Cooper), adjusting to bipolar illness, having lost his wife, his job, and his house? Pat has moved back into his parent’s house to try to put his life back together. Pat and his dysfunctional father sharing a house turn it into a powder keg, so everyone gets to play some flashy, shouty argumentative scenes with plenty of Mamet-inspired back-chat.
Russell predictably builds tension from the unpredictability of bipolar disease and the explosive potential that it brings – with the neighbours, the local police and the public as well as with Tiffany and the parents.
Tiffany offers to help Pat reconnect with his estranged wife, but only if he’ll do something very important for her in return. Pat is corralled into partnering her in a dance competition; like a demanding teenage diva, she uses every guilt-trick in the book to hold him to a promise made under duress. There’s a case of mental cruelty if ever.
Yes, it’s leading man Cooper. Cute and charismatic though he is, I have never understood the attraction. You can see him working through the actor’s toolbox of techniques for mental illness in the hope of award nominations.
While it’s a different twist on the volatile, opposites-attract story, Russell spends more time in quirky episodes than on developing the relationship. There are manufactured, movie-only co-incidences to keep the conflict boiling – the crucial rehearsal set for the same day as the Big Game, Dad’s double bet on the game and the dance competition.
After a quirky first half set-up, it all goes wrong with the flimsy device of Pat’s letter to his ex-wife which Tiffany delivers – but who is the author of the neatly typed reply? From there, it’s a shambolic mess all the way to the Strictly Ballroom comedy dance-sequence and the sudden twist resolution, like everyone lost interest and wanted to get to the wrap-party.
Silver, maybe, but no gold. SC
Silver Linings Playbook (2013)
Director: David O. Russell
Writer: Matthew M. Quick
Genre: Comedy, romance
Running time: 2 hr. 2 min.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, Matthew Russell