David O. Russell described the Led Zeppelin song “What Is and What Should Never Be,” a song used in his new film “Silver Linings Playbook,” as bipolar.
“And if I say to you, tomorrow…” Robert Plant croons smoothly, honestly and calmly, all before a big explosion. “And catch the wind, see us spin/Sail away, leave the day/Way up high in the sky,” he screams.
“Silver Linings Playbook” is just as exciting, surprising and stylish as that Zeppelin song. It’s a crowd pleasing rom-com about two people struggling with bipolar disorder who learn to love, stay positive and enjoy family in the face of lots of hardship.
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is just being released from a psychiatric ward. Eight months earlier, he caught his wife cheating on him and beat her lover half to death, but because he was found to have undiagnosed bipolar disorder, he was able to spend his sentence in a mental institution rather than in prison.
It’s no wonder his disorder would go undiagnosed. Pat is part Italian and living in Philadelphia, and their loud, argumentative family dynamic blends perfectly with Pat’s honest, blunt and high-spirited speaking brought on by his disability. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), also has a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when rooting for the Eagles, adjusting remotes and holding lucky handkerchiefs to ensure an Eagles victory. But O. Russell realizes that all these nervous ticks just come naturally as being part of a family.
The Philly culture he captures here is as authentic and rich as the Boston family in “The Fighter.” O. Russell said upon showing the film in Philadelphia, he’s never heard as much cheering at the sight of a house.
While living at home, Pat wants to rehabilitate himself, getting in shape and reading books so he can win back his wife. But after a friend introduces him at a dinner party, he starts a complicated relationship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), yet another person struggling with her past. She’s been sleeping around with everyone she meets since the death of her husband, and now her social skills are as awkward as Pat’s.
Their chemistry is based on their wonderfully deadpan way of putting all their thoughts and questions right on the surface. Their brutal honesty in front of the “normals” is tense, but the screenplay’s speed and wit makes it hilarious.
The difference between Pat and Tiffany though is their outlook on life. Pat is constantly trying to find the silver lining in every occasion, whereas Tiffany is bleak, bitter and close to a complete breakdown. Pat just has a tendency to explode in the face of certain triggers. Their relationship grants the movie an exciting spontaneity in which we get a dynamic understanding of what it’s like to live with this disorder.
The attention to disability in “Silver Linings Playbook” is what sets it apart from something like “The Sessions,” another movie I saw at CIFF and is a romantic comedy about a paraplegic. That film uses the character’s disability as a plot device, making him widely relatable in an attempt to make it a crowd pleaser.
O. Russell goes a step further. His camerawork and editing has this jumpy immediacy, getting in the characters’ faces with POV clarity. It openly and abruptly makes you feel tense and awkward, and like a person with bipolar disorder, the movie is constantly on the edge between dry comedy and intense drama. By getting in your face and putting everything on the surface, O. Russell surprises you when we learn the characters have depth and that all their disabilities matter to the plot. The style is often clumsy and awkward, but oh so right and fun in terms of capturing the feel of this disability.
Bradley Cooper is the best he’s been in his career. He doesn’t have a “big performance,” but he shows lots of focus and control. His clipped speech, honest personality and optimistic outlook make him a character who is both isolated and inclusive.
Lawrence continues to show range beyond her age as this year’s unbelievable breakout star, but she also proves she’s got expert comedic timing, even moving away from her sex appeal.
As for De Niro, am I wrong in saying this is the first time he’s actually acted in at least 15 years? For so long he’s been in a comfort zone of just being himself, but here he has to be fatherly and vulnerable. He manages to make us care for all the obsessive nuances and details of the entire Eagles football season in one pivotal scene where Tiffany proves that Pat is really a jinx to the Eagles winning.
The common criticism coming out of the festivals about “Silver Linings Playbook” is that it feels very much like a romantic comedy, hitting expected beats and even hinging on a big dance number set piece at the end. But the characters have depth and eloquence that surpass the cliché. The goofy plot details might matter less in a more conventional movie, but to these characters who value these tiny, even insane details as part of their disorders and as part of their families, they mean the world to us.