Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, is billed as an offbeat romantic-comedy – but its vision is much richer than that, giving us a humane glimpse into struggles with mental health.
The story centres around Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man who spent eight months in a mental institution after catching his wife with a lover and nearly beating him to death. He’s bipolar, undiagnosed until the incident, and we meet him while he’s struggling to rebuild his life. He moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in a suburb of Philadelphia, fixated on reuniting with his wife Nikki (this is the ‘silver lining’ of the title); but that’s made difficult by her restraining order against him. Pat strikes up an unconventional friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his friend’s sister-in-law, who is struggling with the untimely death of her husband.
Pat and Tiffany are both outcasts whose brains process their pain in antisocial ways; Pat’s manifests in intense aggression, while Tiffany’s comes out in angry promiscuity. They are unable to mask their suffering while under scrutiny, their past errors are still raw in everyone’s memories. We’re drawn into the narrative, curious about how these two might regain their dignity, earn back the trust of their families, and adjust to their lives after their personal traumas; the romance angle, in truth, is totally secondary to that.
The film is genuinely absorbing because it crafts a credible world for these characters to inhabit. The local details are just right, from the Eagles fandom (the Philly NFL team, not the band) to the neighbourhood diner. Pat’s parents’ house looks lived-in and unglamourous, and you get a real sense of the community Pat belongs to as he jogs through it. The film captures how Pat and Tiffany don’t struggle in isolation; their pain affects their families, friends and neighbours. This is supported by the unintrusive camerawork, stylised just enough to expressionistically reflect the mental states of Pat and Tiffany when required.
But don’t worry – watching Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t feel heavy going. It focuses on the humanity of the characters, not the issues they inevitably represent. It’s enjoyable because it has a keen sense of humour and moves at a fast pace, propelled by the candour of its central duo. While Pat doesn’t have a filter and Tiffany has a penchant for provoking people, luckily, both Cooper and Lawrence manage to keep their outbursts rooted in their characters’ pain, exuding pathos. Many may know Cooper best as the morally corrupt friend in The Hangover or the intense suitor of Rachel McAdams in The Wedding Crashers – he’s fortunate that his manic energy and fratboy appeal finally find a sympathetic home in the character of Pat. It probably doesn’t hurt that Cooper himself grew up in a suburb of Philly. And Lawrence certainly matches his intensity, acting with impressive maturity and gravitas well beyond her 22 years.
The human frailty of Pat and Tiffany is bolstered by Russell’s ensemble cast, who ensure that we put the meanings of ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ into context. John Ortiz is endearingly amusing as Pat’s friend Ronnie who’s struggling under the pressures of family life. And Chris Tucker, who I last saw in Rush Hour, is surprisingly sweet and quirky as Pat’s friend Danny from the institution. De Niro – in his first role in ages that requires him to be more than a caricature – is a welcome scene-stealer as Pat’s dad who is obsessed with the Eagles and their ‘juju’.
The film doesn’t demonise mental illness or lionise those who endure it – it’s made clear that everyone, on medication or not, has issues and their own preferred form of therapy to deal with them, be it running, dancing, working out, or watching football. The most gratifying thing about Silver Linings Playbook is that it thoughtfully engages with the grey areas of life’s difficulties and trusts the audience to make its own judgements. It’s actually a very appropriate film to see this holiday season, because it ought to pique your empathy levels… provided you’re not a Scrooge.
Silver Linings Playbook is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.