David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” sets itself up for disappointment by initially adopting the appearance of a sophisticated movie that it’s not. The premise–two mentally ill people, he bipolar and she coping with the death of her husband, fall in love despite their difficulties with day-to-day life–suggests that the film is the rare romantic-comedy that deals with a couple overcoming real-world problems rather than fantastical ones (like Drew Barrymore’s amnesia in “50 First Dates,” Jack Black’s hallucinatory curse in “Shallow Hal,” and Ralph Fiennes’ socioeconomic snafu in “Maid in Manhattan”). Further, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer’s Lawrence’s lead performances are so palpably believable from the beginning that the film feels ideally primed to be an authentic, heartfelt exploration of what it’s like to find love when one is afflicted by the most socially stigmatized kind of disease.
But that’s not what “Silver Linings Playbook” ultimately is. Instead, writer/director Russell adds numerous plot-points that transform the story into something that more closely resembles the standard-issue, fantasy-driven rom-coms highlighted above. Here’s the gist: Tiffany (Lawrence) is acquainted with Pat’s (Cooper) estranged wife, whom he yearns to get back together with but cannot contact because she has a restraining order against him. (Pat experienced a severe manic outburst upon discovering that his wife was cheating on him, resulting in an eight-month institutionalization.) Tiffany agrees to deliver a peace letter from Pat to his wife on the condition that he be her partner in a semi-professional dance competition, for which she will train him. Complicating matters even further, the couple must earn at least a 5 out of 10 from the judges so that Pat’s severely obsessive-compulsive father (Robert De Niro), who bets the entirety of his illegal sports-book on their achieving such a score after a series of unfortunate wagers, doesn’t end up in the poorhouse. As one would expect in this genre, Tiffany and Pat fall for each other in the process.
Thus, Russell uses the characters’ mental ailments primarily as exposition–a convenient reason for them to forge a connection–rather than a critical piece of what the movie has to say about life and relationships. Undoubtedly, some will view this approach as Russell exploiting mental illness, cutely packaging a serious issue for no other purpose than to make a simple rom-com seem edgy and original. While I understand this argument, I don’t think it has much merit because Pat and Tiffany’s behaviors, removed from the exaggerated plot-line, are believable, not manipulated to the point of inaccuracy to better service the conventional narrative. Sure, both characters become progressively less crazy as the film moves along, ensuring that the viewer has no trouble rooting for them, but this is explainable in that Pat begins taking his medication regularly and seeing a therapist and Tiffany has a positive new experience (dance practice) to distract her from past miseries. Furthermore, when the characters are visibly troubled, the performances ring true: Cooper clearly studied manic-depression in depth and Lawrence perfectly embodies a woman who hides her vulnerability behind promiscuity. Even though “Silver Linings Playbook” may not be as rich as it would have been had it explored the inner-conflicts of these characters in more detail, Russell never compromises their core believability.
Alas, the real question emerges: Is “Silver Linings Playbook” any good as a traditional romantic-comedy? The short answer is: basically, yes. The film’s authentically human lead performances are its greatest asset and, even though the characters might not be fleshed out to the same degree as those of a high-caliber drama, they’re far more dimensional than your average rom-com caricatures. It’s a testament to the actors and the writing that their 15 year age-gap never makes the relationship feel phony. Russell also knows how to craft a good zinger, so laughs are relatively abundant (even though the filmmaker admittedly goes too far over the top with De Niro’s patriarch in this regard). And the movie’s distinct sense of place–Philadelphia is every bit the living, breathing organism here that Lowell, Mass. was in Russell’s last film, “The Fighter”–is appreciable in that it gives the characters supplementary real-world grounding. Of course, there’s never much spontaneity to the experience, as the viewer knows that Tiffany and Pat will end up together from the moment they meet, but such is the nature of the genre. “Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t great art, even by Hollywood standards, but as far as date movies go, it sure as hell beats anything starring Kate Hudson.