Remember when that book The Secret came out? The idea behind The Secret was that positive thinking was the key to happiness and success. It literally suggested that if you wished hard enough for something, it would come true. Needless to say, it was wildly popular. Shortly after The Secret came out, I read a wonderful takedown of it that argued the book was a success precisely because it confirmed for Americans what they already believed to be true: That good things were coming their way. Americans aren’t pessimistic by nature. If anything, they are overly optimistic. They ALWAYS see the silver lining.
That, at its heart, is the essence of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. It captures two fundamental qualities of the American psyche: Our obsession with football (and our conflation of football with life, family, and happiness) and our relentless, sometimes logic-defying optimism.
As the film starts, Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital. He’s been diagnosed as bipolar, with serious anger management issues. The triggering event was catching his wife, a high school English teacher, having an affair with a colleague—Pat beat the colleague to a near pulp. Now he’s lost his wife, his job, his standing in the community.
But Pat is in good mood. Why? Because he has a theory that if he just keeps positive—focuses on self-improvement and a bright future—not only will his ex wife love him again, his entire old life will magically be restored. Of course, his optimism is a fragile, easily shattered thing. If a few things go wrong—if he hears “My Cherie, Amour,” for example, the song that was playing when he caught his wife cheating (and, not incidentally, his wedding song)—he will positively blow.
As such, his parents (wonderful Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) circle him nervously, afraid that he’ll snap at any moment. But Pat Sr., a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, has problems of his own—he’s a gambling addict who thinks that his own fortunes will be turned around if the Eagles can just win one more Big Game. (And in Pat’s world, every week there's a new Big Game.)
At a friend’s house, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), recently widowed and highly medicated herself. She sees in Pat a kindred spirit, a fellow beautiful outsider, but he’s too focused on his own goal to see this perfectly imperfect creature before him. So Tiffany promises to help Pat get a letter to his ex wife, if he’ll help her compete in a ballroom dance competition.
All of this sounds kind of rom-commy and light and, in many ways, it is. The gifted Russell has taken the rom-com structure and suffused it with ideas and intelligence and wit. (He’s also flipped the script on the manic pixie dream girl: For starters, the manic in this case is clinical, not just an adorable personality quirk. And this is the rare film with both the manic pixie dream girl AND the manic pixie dream boy.) The film’s sweetness may come as a surprise to some, since, along with being regarded as a great director, Russell is primarily known for being a real jerk (he famously screamed at Lily Tomlin—Lily Tomlin!—during the filming of I ♥ Huckabees.) But fans of Russell’s early (and criminally overlooked) Flirting With Disaster already knew he had this in him. He’s a secret softy.
Lawrence and Cooper on the other hand, both surprised me. I’ve loved Lawrence in everything she’s done—yes, including The Hunger Games— but I didn’t know she could be so dynamic, so sexy, so vivid (she usually plays low-key characters). She’s great here, especially in a scene where Tiffany opens up to Pat and then accuses him of thinking he’s more mentally balanced than she is (he's not).
As for Cooper, he was the real revelation here to me. In the past, he’s excelled at playing shallow, cocky, playboy types. But Pat is delusional, vulnerable, as eager as a puppy. Cooper shows how flimsy his self-affirmation really is. He’s a highly unreliable narrator that we root for and love all the same.
The classic romantic comedy structure has gotten a bad rap as of late, and rightfully so—the genre has gotten predictable, joyless and lazy. Silver Linings Playbook shows that if you turn the formula over to a smart director, with an insightful script and a committed cast, the genre still has plenty of leg.
*I can’t seem to locate the article, but I do—or if any of my eagle-eyed readers happen to remember it—I’ll be happy to link to it.