“I like to think I’m normal and everyone else is crazy.” This is the mantra the girl I took to my junior prom often recited. I probably thought of myself the same way. She wasn’t really crazy, of course, but that’s not really the point – the point is that people, whether by lineage or choice, are so often surrounded by others cut of the same cloth. You are normal. Your family is normal. Everyone else is crazy, even while everyone else assumes they and their family are normal and you and your family and everyone else are crazy.
Silver Linings Playbook, directed and adapted by David O. Russell from a Matthew Quick novel, opens in the guise of a commonsense chronicling of clinical craziness. Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, fusing with his character so effortlessly you might not notice how stellar he is) has just been released from the mental institution after an eight month stint in the wake of a violent episode involving his wife. Pat’s patient mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up. His father Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), seems less assured his son is ready to re-face the emotional rigors of everyday life.
At first, Pat Jr. appears a loner, an outsider estranged from his family, but as we become closer to the Family Solitano we realize that Pat Jr.’s bi-polar disorder is a product of Pat Sr.’s inflamed O.C.D. involving his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, whether gambling or otherwise, shining a knowing, comical spotlight on the way America has become a football-crazed rubber room.
Russell’s camera spends much of the film swaying back and forth and zooming in and out and wandering to and fro, a masterstroke suggesting, without becoming a distraction, the inner-workings of Pat’s racing mind. He talks full-tilt and without a filter, again and again promising not to ask followup questions and then asking them anyway, unnecessarily charging conversations and situations with pointed queries because he genuinely does not know any better. He admits he does not know any better. Thus, he pledges to do better, to “remake himself”, jogging like an idiosyncratic Rocky and reading Hemingway.
He eventually Meets Cute (Crazy?) with the sorrowfully rageful sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) of his married, child-rearing friends Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles). She has a stained past of her own involving an ex-husband. Pat looks at Tiffany like she’s the craziest person he’s ever met. Tiffany cannot believe that someone as crazy as Pat could deign to call her crazier than him. Lawrence, fast becoming one of our best working actresses of any age, crafts a fully formed individual, bawdy but poignant (not tragic), alternately pushing Pat to do better and picking at him when he doesn’t. Likewise, she conveys the way in which he honors who she is by not simply saying what she wants to hear.
He resists her erratic charms because, as he repeatedly states, he yearns only to make amends and re-unite with his wife whom he still loves and whom he is convinced will eventually re-reciprocate that love. Never mind that she took out a restraining order against him. Tiffany offers to illegally deliver a letter from Pat to his ex-wife if Pat agrees to become her partner for a Christmas dance contest.
At this point viewers will be forgiven for suspecting a movie about mental checks and balances is on the verge of plunging into sentimentality. And this is partly because David O. Russell’s intention is to subvert the sentimentality by serving it in a glorious loony bin of a third act that does what so few film do anymore these days and brings together its entire frenzied horde on a single stage. The setting is no accident. Christmas is a time, the refrain goes, when families come together to set aside their differences. But what they’re really doing is embracing similarities and standing united. In the end, Pat Jr. does not remake himself. He realizes he’s already made and makes his own variation of peace with it.
Silver Linings Playbook has the structure and ethos of a Romantic Comedy, a genre which typically manipulates viewers into ostensibly falling for an emotionally counterfeit ending. David O. Russell, however, subtly, skillfully and wonderfully has crafted a screwball comedy about screwed up but – deep down – loving people continually lying to and manipulating each other. And the conclusion, which has the outward appearance of formula, is not false because it’s the one time this whole dysfunctional clan stops lying and manipulating and finally gives in to what’s true.