Mostly Cloudy: Looking for David O. Russell in Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook, which stars Bradley Cooper as a manic-depressive man-child attempting to get his life back together after a breakdown, won the coveted Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and subsequently shot to the top of most Oscar prognosticators' Best Picture short list. The film's pre-release embrace is a vindication of the long recovery project of its director, David O. Russell, who adapted the film from Matthew Quick's novel. Russell is still doing penance for his own manic episode, I Heart Huckabees, a wonderfully nutty 2004 passion project exploring the desperate search for meaning within corporate America. "I had a free ticket after [his hit Iraq film] Three Kings, so I decided to take a risk," Russell said upon Huckabees' release. "If this movie makes its money back, I will get another ticket."
Huckabees did not earn Russell another ticket, and the film he attempted to make after it, Nailed, was abandoned unfinished. The Oscar-winning The Fighter, which Russell was hired to direct by producer/star Mark Wahlberg, seemed like Russell's announcement that he was through with risk taking, that he wanted to work in Hollywood and was willing to subsume his own famously volatile personality into a workmanlike prestige product in order to prove it. In other words, after Huckabees proved the pointlessness of fighting against the homogenizing instinct of corporate culture, Russell apparently gave in to the system he once struck out against. And while Silver Linings feels somewhat more personal than The Fighter, it also feels like the movie version of a brilliant but unbalanced mind on too many edge-sanding meds.
Released from the psych hospital where he was sent after a spectacular, marriage-ending manic fit, Pat Solitano (Cooper) moves back into his childhood home in drab suburban Philly. Between mandated therapy sessions he works on both body (jogging around the neighborhood wearing a garbage bag over his sweats) and mind (reading the books his ex-wife, Nikki, teaches to high school English students). A Farewell to Arms triggers a blowup—Pat can't handle the unhappy ending. "I will apologize on behalf of Ernest Hemingway," he tells his father after breaking a window. "That's who's to blame here."
Cooper spits out such lines in an unmodulated, rapid-fire assault, his eyes wide and shining. Russell trusts us to draw on, like, every movie we've ever seen to recognize this is what the fearlessness of the mad looks and sounds like; the twist is that Pat's parents—Eagles-superfan-turned-superstitious-amateur-bookie Pat Senior (Robert De Niro) and the sweetly overbearing Dolores (Jacki Weaver)—speak the same way. The scenes set in the Solitano home are a cacophony of mile-a-minute monotone, a high-wire feat of hyperactive ensemble acting. They're the best, most alive parts of the movie.
Pat subscribes to a philosophy of positive thinking, which he apparently picked up while in the mental ward, a coping mechanism encouraging a relentless optimism that amounts to a willful distortion of reality. Like many crazy people and assholes, Pat brands himself a "truth teller" in a world full of phonies; he is, of course, the only person who can't see the truth about himself, which is that he's incapable of empathy. Whether he knows it or not, what he's really working toward is learning how to break through the blinders of his own emotions and become cognizant of the feelings of other people. It comes as no surprise that the vehicle for this transformation is a slow-building romance between Pat and Tiffany, a depressed, bruised young widow played with feisty authenticity by Jennifer Lawrence. Tiffany vaguely knows Nikki, and after a few awkward false starts of flirtation/stalking, she suckers Pat into agreeing to be her partner in a dance competition in exchange for helping him get in touch with his ex, restraining order be damned.
Are these two incredibly attractive, well-meaning eccentrics victims of an overreactive age of knee-jerk overmedication? Or are they really, clinically looney tunes? Silver Linings doesn't seem to care. Pat and Tiffany's common damage only matters insofar as it gives each of them a need to find understanding and healing in the other. Anything reflecting the long-term reality of living with mental illness—particularly the fact that love is its own kind of mania, more likely to inspire mood swings than cure them—would get in the way of the happy ending that the film has broadcast all along.
Russell shows his affinity for the bipolar spirit by radically shifting tones and mashing up aesthetics, an approach mirrored by the dance Lawrence and Cooper perform at the end, a medley of songs and styles that come together in a fractured, charmingly messy whole. Silver Linings Playbook is shot with the same visual shorthand for "real" Russell employed on The Fighter, but the new film is obstinately escapist. The crackling organic feeling conjured by the fine ensemble is dulled by Tiffany's habit of speechifying subtext (telling Pat he's "scared to be alive," summing up herself by admitting, "There's always gonna be a part of me that's sloppy and dirty, but I like that!") and contrasted by an internal logic that's distinctly classic small-town screwball. The film begins around Halloween and spans Thanksgiving and Christmas, allowing Pat's arc to play out against a backdrop of holiday iconography evocative of deep American sentimental myth shit. Silver Linings is a "gritty" depiction of broken people trying to get it together; it's also a fairy tale.
Manic as it might be stylistically, emotionally Silver Linings Playbook maintains too even of a keel. It's a film about the alienated that makes sure to alienate no one, a movie depicting wild mood extremes that never rises or falls above a dull hum of diversion, never exploding into riotous comedy or daring to be devastatingly sad. Its chaos is always tightly controlled. Russell has made a great movie about American malaise; this isn't it.
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