[Note: This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Silver Linings Playbook opens today in limited release.]
We have acceptable levels of “crazy” in our society, and that in itself is kind of crazy. Some psychosis is cute and charming, while other acts of craziness demand hospitalization and medication. This distinction is obviously based on harm, both to others and to oneself. But there’s a “healthy” level of crazy, and the search for that level is what makes David O. Russell‘s Silver Linings Playbook sharply comic and surprisingly sweet. O. Russell has once again returned to study the dysfunctional family, and while Silver Linings Playbook is softer than Flirting with Disaster and even The Fighter, it still has enough of an edge to deliver some great jokes, and strong performances to make the emotions ring true.
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has been released from a mental hospitalized, and into the care of his parents Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro). Pat Jr. was sentenced to eight months of hospitalization after he walked in on his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) having sex with another man, and then Pat proceeded to beat the man half to death. Even though Pat has been released from the hospital, he still labors under the delusion he can get Nikki back. However, his plan hits a snag when he meets kindred crazy person Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is trying to cope with her husband’s death by sleeping with every guy that moves. Despite their mental issues, and perhaps because of them, Pat and Tiffany begin to repair the other’s broken heart and mind.
The film’s humor is the essential bulwark against any schmaltziness. The unfiltered dialogue between the characters is terrific, and it feeds the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence. The two can go through banter, soul-bearing, misunderstanding, and reconciliation all in the span of a single scene, and the transitions never feel awkward. The entire cast is solid (although Pat’s friend Danny (Chris Tucker) adds absolutely nothing to the story), but the standout is easily Lawrence. There’s just so much sadness and resentment in the character, but through Lawrence we see how badly Tiffany wants to heal. She’s not trying to go sane; she’s just trying to not hurt anymore.
Crazy isn’t all bad according to Silver Linings. Although the film seems to have an odd anti-medication bent (the characters take meds reluctantly, and see them as a way to make other people feel better but not themselves), it does show that it’s not bad being crazy if you have someone along for the ride. Of course, the film rarely gets into dangerous-crazy. Pat has a bit of a meltdown and starts breaking things when he hears a particular song, but other than that he’s just socially awkward and in a deep state of denial. Tiffany has a lot of meaningless sex, but she’s not physically harming anyone. At worst, their craziness is frowned upon.
But then the movie seizes upon the mass psychosis Americans not only find acceptable, but wholehearted embrace: sports fanaticism. Pat and his family are hardcore Philadelphia Eagles fans, and Pat Sr. is trying to raise money for a restaurant by gambling on sports. Pat Sr. is incredibly superstitious, and believes the Eagles will win if he’s watching the game with his son. It’s madness. It’s madness to believe anything any single fan could do would change the outcome of the game. But it’s cute, and mainstream society probably doesn’t think Pat Sr. needs therapy. So how can we single out Pat and Tiffany as pariahs when their trespasses are equally benign?
As his follow-up to The Fighter, David O. Russell has delivered another crowd-pleaser that won’t challenge the audience, but will leave them happy and entertained without having their intelligence insulted. I hope that O. Russell will eventually return to material that’s a little more daring like I Heart Huckabees, but there’s nothing crazy about making a sweet movie with a little bit of bite. And even if it was crazy, that would be okay.