There's a short conversation in Silver Linings Playbook (2012, directed by David O. Russel) when its protagonist, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) meets Tiffany Miller (Jennifer Lawrence) in which they compare notes on their various experiences with medication. Both of these characters share a history of mental illness. I think this is the scene that really won me over to the movie, because in most "meet-cute" scenes in romantic comedies, you don't get truth. Here, you get truth naked for both characters to see. It struck a chord in me because whenever I meet other people with similar histories to my own history, you can be sure that the conversation will eventually turn to the minutiae of the medications we've taken: dosages, delivery methods, effects, drawbacks. The shock of recognition is powerful. The difference between a run of the mill romantic comedy and a really great romantic comedy is in the details and if you can make the lovers in such a movie real to me--as this film does--then you've gone a long way toward taking me willingly on whatever emotional journey you like.
Pat Solitano has been institutionalized for the last few months as the movie opens. His story, gradually revealed, finds him recovering from the disaster of both a bad break-up with his marriage and bi-polar disorder, both of which converged in an incident that caused him to be committed. But that's all in the past--though Pat clings to the hope that if he can get his life back together then his wife, Nikki, will come back to him. He's been released into the custody of his parents. His dad is a passionate Philadelphia Eagles fan and he's been bookmaking as a means of making a living since losing his job. He's not allowed to go to games anymore. He got into too many fights at the stadium. They banned him. He has a hair trigger, just like his son. Pat, meanwhile, is looking for a way to get around the restraining order filed against him. He finds his path of communication with Ronnie and his wife, Veronica, who are still in contact with Nikki, Veronica's sister, Tiffany, has, like Pat, had a horrible thing happen to her marriage and has suffered mental trauma because of it. The two of them are drawn together, and Tiffany engages Pat as her partner in a dance competition. The carrot she uses is contact with Nikki. Pat's dad wants him to watch football with him, believing Pat to be a juju luck charm. The two commitments eventually clash, resulting in a huge bet involving a football game and the dance competition. Tiffany, for her part, has a secret agenda...
It's been a while since I paid any attention to David O. Russell. I didn't much like his early comedies, though I did like his Iraq War I film, Three Kings, quite a bit. Of his output since, I have seen nothing. So I didn't know what to expect from Silver Linings Playbook. It's not as caustic as those early comedies. It's more humane, though probably not less quirky. When you have a protagonist who is bi-polar, you can pretty much count on "quirky," and this film does not disappoint on that count. I suspect the difference between those films and this one is that this one is explicitly a romance, and love, as they say, conquers all. Still, this is appointed with clever little vignettes, whether it's Pat's encounter with his therapist at an Eagles game or the terror his ex-co-worker expresses when he ambles up to the school where he used to work or the incredibly awkward dinner with Ronnie and Veronica. While this movie is essentially sweet, it's a prickly kind of sweet.
Russell is incredibly lucky in his collaborators. Robert De Niro is a known quantity, one of the best actors in Hollywood when he's not phoning it in. He doesn't phone it in playing Pat's father. It's his best performance in years. Jennifer Lawrence has become a superstar since she made her indie splash in Winter's Bone, but any doubts that her meteoric rise as a superstar would compromise her career as a serious actress are laid to rest here. She can do comedy, it seems, and well. She's going to have a long, long career. And then there's Bradley Cooper. I've written about my antipathy to Cooper before. He has a face that I'd like to punch. Usually. Not here. Who knew that he had this performance in him? I mean, he still has those dudebro good looks, but there's a light in his eyes here that animates his performance in a way that has been completely absent from his performances in the past. It's like someone flipped a switch in his head. Who knew that he was a by god actor? Not me.
The details make the film, I think. I love the minutiae of Philadelphia Eagles fandom. The Eagles are notorious for their fans, and De Niro's character seems typical of them. I like the bonding of dance, and the fact that the big dance contest doesn't result in our star-crossed lovers winning anything (they cover the spread, though, so to speak). I love the ferocity of Lawrence's character. My god, she's good. I also like the fact that this film turns on the textual analysis of a letter that determines that it was not written by who we are told wrote it. This is the second film I've seen this month that hinges on such a thing (the other was Footnote, which I'm struggling to write about). The English major in me delights at this. It gets the romance part right, too, and when you get down to it, I'm a complete sucker for a romance well filmed. This puts in the work and earns its climax. On the whole, I walked out of this film beaming.