Though hamfisted at times and ultimately predictable, Silver Linings Playbook still manages to bring some real brio to a genre long since sodden with platitudes and empty humor. And despite some serious errors in judgement, Silver Linings Playbook is one of those rare love stories with actual heart.
After coming upon his wife in flagrante delicto having shower-fun-time with a baldheaded high-school history teacher, Pat (Bradley Cooper) snaps and almost beats him to death. Once out of the mental hospital wherein he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Pat embarks on an obsessive mission to win his wife back, but meets broken wing Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) along the way.
Playbook‘s greatest strength is also its weakness. Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter) messes with the love story formula in some interesting, even brave ways. Instead of a Prince Charming we get someone dangerously unhinged. Instead of a virtuous Princess, we have a hostile tramp. (More on the problematic nature of Lawrence’s character below.) Instead of Camelot: working class Philly. It’s a brazen opening gambit, and to Russell’s credit, as well as the actors who really put their backs into the roles, it works… most of the time.
The warts-and-all esprit of the premise, the setting, and even the in-the-trenches camerawork bring sorely needed stakes to the slowly blooming connection between Pat and Tiffany, but it also clashes garishly when the movie veers into conventionality, which is bafflingly often. It’s difficult to chuckle at obviously written zingers when they’re coming out of the mouth of someone who nearly beat someone to death, and it’s hard to swallow the merry, fanciful third act of the movie while remaining aware that its entire impetus is a result of Pat’s father’s (Robert De Niro) demented gambling addiction. Though basically an excellent movie, Playbook too often wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to make bold challenges to the conventions of its genre and it does. Sometimes, as in the archetypal first date scene in which Pat takes Tiffany to a diner and orders a small bowl of Raisin Bran so as to indicate that it’s not a date, it even cleverly exploits our expectations and ambushes us into feeling more deeply for this fraught twosome. But then, perplexingly, it’ll balk, and we’re suddenly thrust into wonderland where love conquers all and impossible coincidences flow like honey.
Lawrence’s character is badly underwritten as well and, what’s worse, reveals a childish conception of the way mental illness works; a flaw which permeates the whole movie. In Tiffany’s case, we’re meant to find it believable that because her husband died while trying to tote home some racy lingerie in an attempt to juice up their flagging sex life, the shame and guilt and trauma of the event induced her into temporary nymphomania, at which point she banged everyone at work and got fired. It’s a preposterous manifestation of the hydraulic school of psychology, and it’s even a little gross the way Russell tries to titillate us with tales from her long, dark, sweaty, grunting night of the soul.
Even so, Playbook on balance handles both eros and agape with skill and imperturbable humaneness. Lawrence’s mesmerizing sexiness flows from a resolute stillness in her performance as much as it does her waist-to-hip ratio, and Pat Sr.’s aching, bottled up affection for his son is cemented in two devastating and memorable scenes which remind us why he’s still one the greatest actors alive. In Playbook romantic and filial love alike aren’t based on snazzy quips or sappy monologues, but on sacrifice, grit, loyalty, a willingness to accept those flaws which can’t be helped, and a determination to shore up against the ones that can. In other words: It’s a love story about real love.