It’s basically a rom-com. That was what shocked me: really, it’s a romantic comedy.
I mean, this is a David O. Russell film. This is the guy who made Three Kings, still the best Iraq war film ever (well, that or The Hurt Locker, which is so different stylistically it feels wrong to lump them together.) This is also the guy who George Clooney kind of famously duked it out with on the set of Three Kings. This is the guy who started out with Spanking the Monkey, the guy who made I Heart Huckabees. This is the guy who some people were seriously comparing to David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson and Quintin Tarantino back when they were all Young Turks. Making a rom-com? Has his star fallen so low he had to take a studio assignment? But his last film was The Fighter, a terrific Oscar-buzz type of movie. So that can’t be it.
Here’s the thing with romantic comedies. What you do is you find one of the five actresses in the world who are cute enough and project enough personality to carry a movie. Not a great beauty–I don’t think Charlize Theron’s ever made one. The target audience is women–you need a leading actress who comes across sufficiently unthreatening. Meg Ryan back in the day, Sandra Bullock, then Drew Barrymore; next, it’ll probably be Emma Stone. You pay the leading actress 20 million, then her leading man 1 million, and 4 million for everything else, and you spend 20 million to market it, and open it sensibly, and you’re guaranteed 60-70 million box office, more if it hits big. The formula is simple–set it in a romantic city location, they meet cute, fall for each other, break it off because of some weakness or vulnerability (best if it’s hers), work it out with help of her gay best friend/less attractive sister, and re-unite at the last second, possibly involving a chase scene.
Silver Linings Playbook follows every one of those conventions. Every one, including the chase. But then, so did, I don’t know, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a film which kind of re-invented romcoms.
What makes SLP wonderful, though, is just the sheer humanity of it. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, exactly, but as I watched it, I did laugh out loud a lot. It’s R-rated (strange for romantic comedies), because many many F-bombs are dropped, but the language works–it’s how these people talk.
Enough dithering: the story. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a one-time substitute history teacher at the local high school. As the film begins, he’s in a mental hospital, after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death. But Pat’s an incurable optimist. When his mother, Dolores (the wonderful Jacki Weaver) signs him out of the hospital (wondering all the while if she’s doing the right thing), Pat is full of plans. His wife, Nikki (Brea Bee) has taken out a restraining order against him, but he doesn’t care. She’s an English teacher, so he gets hold of her syllabi, intending to read every book she assigns her classes, as an act of devotion. (He then wakes up his parents in the middle of the night, shouting about how unfair the ending of A Farewell To Arms was.) Pat’s battlecry is Excelsior; he just intends to keep looking for silver linings wherever he goes. Cooper’s wonderful as Pat, and I’ve not always been much of a Bradley Cooper fan. But he’s great; full of cockeyed certainty, a demented Pangloss, sure he’ll be able to win back Nikki’s love.
I’m making his mental illness (he’s bi-polar) sound cute and fuzzy and like the kind of minor relationship-impediment a romcom might include. It’s not. He’s seriously impaired. He loses it one night, and punches his mother, and gets in a fist fight with his father. He loses it in his psychiatrist’s office. (His shrink, Dr. Patel, is wonderfully played by Anupam Kher, as a thoroughly assimilated Indian, and fanatical Philadelphia Eagles’ fan.) Cooper’s performance shows that element of danger–this is not a stable guy, or safe, or warm-and-fuzzy.
Pat’s Dad is played by Robert DeNiro, and he’s terrific as always–a loving and dysfunctional and not-all-there father, who has lost his job and now makes ends meet by running an illegal sports book out of his study. Pat Sr. is also convinced that a direct correlation exists between how exactly he propitiates the Sporting Gods who he superstitiously worships, and how well the Eagles do. He thinks that the Eagles will win if Pat watches the games with him. But Pat isn’t interested–he runs incessantly, wearing a garbage bag over his grey sweatshirt, trying to get in good shape so Nikki will want him back.
Pat’s best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), invites him to dinner, an invitation rather mysteriously seconded by Ronnie’s wife, Veronica (Julia Styles), who has made no secrets of her disdain for that friendship. But when Pat shows up to dinner, it turns out Veronica has also invited her sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Possibly on the theory that Tiffany is the one person on earth as crazy as Pat.
Neither Pat nor Tiffany have any social filters, none. Ronnie introduces them, whispering to Pat that Tiffany’s husband, a cop, recently died, but that she doesn’t like to talk about it. So Pat immediately says, “Hi! How did your husband die?” And everyone at the party is shocked and appalled, except Tiffany, who it turns out kind of likes it. She and Pat have a fun chat about which anti-psychotics they’ve taken–they hit it off.
And that’s the film, Pat and Tiffany’s relationship. Again, Tiffany’s illness is not cute, nor is it treated as in any way adorable. It’s caused her to sleep with all the other people in her office, and got her fired from her job. She’s self-destructive. She’s a mess. He’s a mess. They’re messy, hurting, damaged, seriously screwed-up people. And nothing in the film suggests otherwise. They do seem right for each other, but if they end up together, as we watch them, a murder-suicide does not seem outside the realm of possible outcomes.
And yet we root for them, we genuinely do. She has chosen, in a kind of self-imposed therapy, to enter a ballroom dance competition in downtown Philadelphia. She asks, then begs, then blackmails Pat into partnering her. She’s not a particularly good dancer, and he’s never danced in his life. But they do have leisure time to spare, and dance together for hours each day. Coached by Pat’s even crazier friend from the hospital, Danny, (Chris Tucker), who has managed to game the mental health system and get himself released.
Their dancing infuriates Robert DeNiro’s Pat Sr. because it means Pat isn’t able to watch Eagles’ games with him, plus he thinks Pat shouldn’t be dating someone possibly as crazy as he is. And Pat insists they’re not dating, they’re just friends and dance partners, because, you know, he’s married. To Nikki. And just needs to work around that silly restraining order nonsense.
Anyway, it all ends with a confrontation scene, in which Tiffany points out that the Eagles (and also the Phillies–Pat Sr. also likes baseball, just not as much) have tended to win when Pat dance-rehearses with her, and lose when Pat watches games with Dad. That he’s gotten the ju-ju wrong–that his superstitions are based on a false reading of the evidence. That the Eagles need Pat to dance, with her. And, in my favorite moment in the film, DeNiro nods sagely, and admits she’s got it right.
Man, I can’t begin to describe how much I loved that moment. Non-sports-fans wouldn’t get it, not at all. But we do that–we ascribe the victories and defeats of our favorite sports teams to Something We Did. I read a few reviews of the film, and one critic said she found this moment, the main turning point in the film, completely implausible. No rational person could possibly believe in sports superstitions, and certainly not enough to base a major life decision on one. Me, I’m nodding my head. I’m on a roll now; my Giants won the World Series last year, and don’t tell me my lucky slippers weren’t the main reason. I know better.
To win a major (illegal) bet for his Dad, Pat and Tiffany have to score a 5 in the dance competition. A 5 is a very low score, and most of the other dancers are really exceptionally good. When they dance (and they aren’t really good at all, a detail I’m so delighted about), and see they’ve scored exactly a 5.0, they’re leaping about, celebrating, to the astonishment of all these professional dancers who were bummed when they got an 8.
Anyway, it’s a great film, one of the great romcoms, even though nobody’s going to get that it is one. I’ve heard people mention Jennifer Lawrence as a possible Oscar nominee; it wouldn’t surprise me if that were to happen. She’s great in this. So is Bradley Cooper. What a wonderfully human film they’ve made together.