AFI 2012 Review: Silver Linings Playbook

We’re going to be hearing a lot about Silver Linings Playbook come awards season, and a lot of it will be for the right reasons. There are some awesome performances including but not limited to Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, but I bet some of the film’s depth will go unnoticed. Writer/director David O. Russell is being really subversive here, and it works for the mainstream rom-com crowd but man, there’s some interesting stuff going on.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) gets released from a mental facility after an incident with his wife sent him over the edge. He lives with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) to try to return to normalcy, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a volatile widow who frankly doesn’t seem like the safest influence for him but if we can’t take our eyes off of her, how can we blame Pat?

The beginning of this movie had the audience laughing like bipolar disorder was some Hugh Grant/Matthew McConaughey gimmick. It is funny in a tragic way, but I know 90% of this audience just saw a good-looking guy misbehaving. I know Pat’s fast talking rants, self-justifications and blurting out of inappropriate comments were not just for our amusement. They are the manifestations of deep psychological trouble. Then Pat loses it for real and everyone got it. Nice one, David O. Russell.

Yes, Pat isn’t cute crazy. He really is bipolar and has really dangerous episodes. In the least intense times, Pat still has delusions about reconnecting with his wife. His family really isn’t a healthy environment either, since his dad is an OCD sports bookie. Even regardless of their enabling, his parents are not equipped to handle their son’s medical condition, but you know most families aren’t and they still have to deal with this, because they can’t afford institutional care, or don’t want to lose their son to an institution.

Then Tiffany comes in and even Pat knows there’s something inappropriate about her blunt advances and volatile mood swings. She and Pat are playing with each other’s fire. The age gap would bother me if Lawrence weren’t so damn good. She may be playing late ‘20s, but probably not. She is just such a powerful presence, who wouldn’t be drawn to her, Hollywood ageism aside?

There is a fire in Tiffany, and Lawrence goes Nicolas Cage crazy in her key moments. However, she kind of shows the most when she goes dead eyed. The notion that we’re rooting for these two unstable people to get together seems really subversive. Rom-com relationships are usually based on some kind of manipulation, so why not go all out?

This is also a rom-com with a dance tournament in it, but in Silver Linings it’s not just an innocent pseudo-sexual bonding mechanism. Everything typical becomes a trigger for poor Pat. De Niro makes up for the Fockers movies by playing a character in a film that acknowledges his responsibility in the kind of dysfunction the Fockers celebrates.

Silver Linings Playbook is a confronting movie for a public that I think largely misunderstands mental illnesses. Russell takes a light touch so the film doesn’t feel like medicine, nor does it in fact make light of Pat and Tiffany’s issues. Cooper and Lawrence get to show off but it doesn’t look like they’re playing to Oscar. They’re making the most out of roles that have very few restrictions and swinging for the fences in them.

You can follow Fred Topel on Twitter at @FredTopel.