I was one of the few people who hated David O Russell’s The Fighter. In retrospect, it is difficult to explain why. I felt that the film was missing a certain human element that made the proceedings seem rather sterile and alien. Yes, all of the actors gave great performances. But they never, for a moment, seemed like real people.
Silver Linings Playbook addresses that concern. Every single character in this work seems like a fully realized human being. It makes the drama and their eccentricities more poignant. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give some of the best performances of the year, as damaged people who are trapped in their past relationships. Their attempts to turn themselves into the opposite of the people who destroyed the marriages leads to insanity and instability. They are crazy, yes, and but they are also so human.
Cooper plays Pat, a man whose marriage fell apart after he caught his wife having an affair with a coworker. When the film begins, he returns home from a mental institution, but still acts irrationally and violently over the most trivial things. (His character’s behavior resembles the famously unstable Russell’s actions on set.) And Lawrence plays Tiffany, a woman whose husband was killed as he was shopping for a romantic gift. She dances to take the pain away, but also has become a sex addict and a woman prone to the same sort of emotional outbursts as Pat. The two meet at a dinner party where they both have a competition to see who can make the most inappropriate comments about each other. He eventually agrees to help her with a dance routine in exchange for her delivering messages to his ex-wife.
Such a set up could lead to a depressing drama (like The Fighter) or a pathetic attempt at screwball comedy. Silver Linings Playbook is neither. It is a Woody Allen esque romantic comedy that takes the odd route of remaining lighthearted despite all of the troubling emotional issues it forces viewers to confront.
Many of the laughs in this film (and there are many) are barely even noticeable at first. Pat usually addresses asides at characters, and much of the dialogue is reduced to the point where nothing can be understood. Usually, this is because the characters are all shouting at each other. But that’s how most conversation works. And if you listen closely, it is possibly to hear some of the best lines of the year. My personal favorite involved Robert De Niro (who plays Pat’s sports addicted father) threatening a youth who wanted to interview Pat for a school project (I’m going to break that camera over your head, come back, and interview you about what it’s like to have that camera broken over your head!). Silver Linings Playbook is a film that rewards people for paying attention.
But what about the main themes of the film? Is the script just meant to be one large in joke? After all, if there is nothing on the surface, then there is no reason for anyone to dig deeper.
But the film also gives us an extremely effective core. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper display massive amounts of chemistry when they are together on screen. This is not merely two people who instantly fall in love. This feels like a real relationship, with conflict, heartbreak, and those wonderfully touching moments when two people realize they have more in common than they think. That is what separates Silver Linings Playbook from far lesser romantic comedies. Both of them play equally desperate characters who view their own romantic attraction in the way many people in that position would. It is not a question of accomplishing a goal. It is a question of analytical people trying to comprehend the illogical. Pat even states about how people with mental illnesses may be able to perceive things that other people cannot. It is why both seem to be so comfortable in dance and physical activity – they can let themselves go more easily.
I point this out because, in other romantic comedies, such a gimmick would be exactly that. The romantic leads would dance because it is believed that would be “cute.” That approach is all wrong, because it gives the characters no real emotional investment in the activity. Yes, the film does end on a stereotypical “big dance number.” But it is one that makes sense for the characters – the moment is found, not made.
Silver Linings Playbook is one of those rare romantic comedies that is not only funny, but actually romantic. Instead of presenting audiences with two drips who can barely hold together a cognitive thought between the two, Russell’s film is a glorious exploration of how two hopeless misfits can fall in love. What’s more, it is also not something that takes its characters on a preset route, but actually lets the two personalities bounce off each other. The result is a wonderful comedy that reminded me why people even like romances in the first place.