Mental illness is a modern movie stigma. Many directors have tried and failed to make a film covering the concept, with their efforts undercut by obvious ploys to tap into either viewers’ sweet tooth or their tear ducts.
Silver Linings Playbook, the new film by David O. Russell (The Fighter), dares to invoke this theme. But, unlike most of its enumerable counterparts, it’s truly life-affirming. Bypassing both schmaltz and overt melodrama, it’s a gorgeous little beacon of positivity that is more genuine than just about any other movie you’ll see all year.
The film opens up with Pat Solitano’s (Bradley Cooper, Hit and Run) exit from a Baltimore mental institution, where he was sent via court order after brutally assaulting his wife’s (Brea Bee, The Best and the Brightest) lover upon discovering them having sex. Pat comes home to live, once again, with his sweet, sympathetic mother (Jackie Weaver, The Five-Year Engagement) and brash, outspoken father (Robert De Niro, Freelancers), all while vowing to rekindle his marriage despite the months apart.
Throughout most of the film, Pat is crippled by unending delusions, ranging from day-to-day social awkwardness — he has a knack for asking deeply personal and highly inappropriate questions to the wrong people — to recurring violent rages that stem from hearing Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” which was playing when he first discovered his wife was cheating on him.
The first “My Cherie Amour” scene, aptly set in a therapist’s office — in which Pat smashes a bunch of shelves while the song floats softly through an overhead speaker — is a perfect choke-on-your-laughter sequence. It’s essentially a microcosm of the entire film; Russell is able to deftly walk the tightrope between comedy and crushing sadness without ever teetering completely over into either camp.
While Pat struggles to recover his old life, he grows close with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, House at the End of the Street), a friend of his wife’s who is still emotionally bruised by the recent, accidental death of her husband. Their relationship comes to fruition when Tiffany agrees to give Pat’s wife a letter from him in exchange for his participation in a dance competition with her. But Pat’s father, who believes Pat is good luck for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles when they watch games together, doesn’t approve, imploring his son to stay at home more, especially on Sundays.
Lawrence and Cooper are simply stupendous here, playing the most unequivocally quirky characters of their, so far, hodgepodge acting careers. This is especially apparent during the dance rehearsal scenes which shine with a deep, natural sexiness free from the contrivances of flesh desire. A waltz may foster physical attraction between two partners, but this is more like calculated swaying to keep from crying.
The supporting cast of the film is excellent as well, with Chris Tucker (Rush Hour 3) and John Ortiz (Jack Goes Boating) giving near-perfect comedic performances. But the surprising one of the bunch is the bedeviled Robert De Niro, who gifts us with his best and most honest work in years as the gambling, conniving sports nut daddy. In essence, his relationship with the Philadelphia Eagles is the turbulent bedrock for the entire movie, as he attempts to hinder Pat’s emotional progress by trying to convince him Tiffany is as destructive and unstable as he is. And this is just so Pat can sit in the living room chair and cultivate the positive mojo for his beloved football team.
In the end, all the credit for this aching tale goes to Russell, who has such a knack for making his films feel intimate and homespun. In fact, many of the sequences in Silver Linings Playbook end up being subtly cyclical: Mundane set pieces like a house or a store strip or a pothole constantly reoccur. Characters evolve, but the exterior stays quiet and unwavering. In fact, had Russell chosen to put his movie in the heart of Philadelphia, as opposed to its suburban fringe, everything would have felt a bit louder and more claustrophobic.
Instead, it amounts to a stylistic touch that pays off and exists as another small example of why Silver Linings Playbook may be the best film of the year.