It’s very hard to find a movie that deals with mental illness in a compassionate way, let alone without descending into cheap emotionally-exploitive hokum. The story of Pat Solitano, coping with his “undiagnosed bipolar” disorder by returning home, Silver Linings Playbook manages to be sincere without being cheesy, to be warm without being soft and to be human without being melodramatic. Returning to his parent’s house, Pat stumbles across Tiffany, another “broken bird” dealing with her own personal issues. Silver Lining Playbook is the story of two extremely damaged people helping one another in the most human way possible.
David O. Russell’s direction and scripting are both key ingredients that help make Silver Linings Playbook a standout personal drama. Russell infuses the movie with enough humour and humanity to make the familiar set-up seem more organic than it would otherwise. The characters are all well-drawn, feeling like more than just pieces to be moved through a familiar plot. Even relatively minor characters, like Pat’s passive-aggressive brother or his optimistic therapist, both seem far more developed than similar characters in lesser films.
However, while Russell’s script provides a solid foundation for the film to build upon, it’s the ensemble that sets Silver Linings Playbook apart, and the fact that Russell seems to know exactly what to do with each of them. It’s the mark of a great director that he can angle even the most tired and one-dimensional of actors successfully. Luckily, most of the cast of Silver Linings Playbook is composed of veteran charismatic screen actors, but Russell really knows how to handle his cast.
I would not describe myself as a fan of Chris Tucker – his presence is usually just a little too bombastic and exhausting for me. However, Russell plays to Tucker’s strengths when casting him in a small role as Pat’s motormouth institutional friend. Russell seems to realise that Tucker works extremely well in short sustained bursts. He wanders in and out of the narrative, but he always adds an intense energy to his scenes that never outstay his welcome. Russell deploys Tucker’s rapid-fire deliver and overwhelming screen persona with an incredible technical skill. There’s never too much or too little of him. There’s always just the right amount.
Even more impressive is Russell’s handling of Robert DeNiro. I will be the first to concede that DeNiro’s recent cinematic output hasn’t been of the highest quality. Part of that is down to his own choices as an actor, but it’s also down to the way that films and scripts use him. Russell shrewdly recognises that DeNiro’s charm is in his intensity, and the best of the scenes featuring DeNiro play to those strengths. There is a lovely moment at the climax of the film where Pat receives from sincere fatherly advice from his dad.
Other films would wallow in the moment, pump up the soundtrack, overplay everything including the performances. Russell realises that DeNiro’s best line delivery is intense – DeNiro is a powerhouse dramatic actor, but if you want value from him as a supporting actor, you give him bang for his buck. As a result, the exchange between father and son lasts under a half a minute, with DeNiro giving the impression that if his character hesitated the sentiment might be lost forever – he’s so unfamiliar with this form of interaction that he has to get it all out there before he can pause or stop himself. It’s a moment that it is tempting to linger on, or to emphasise. Instead, Russell allows DeNiro to hammer it as quickly as possible. It’s only thirty seconds, but it might be the single best moment Robert DeNiro has had on-screen in twenty years.
To be fair, Russell has proven himself one of the masters of the modern ensemble. There’s a reason that The Fighter took home both “Supporting Actor/Actress” trophies, and had a nomination to spare. Silver Linings Playbook works well playing to each actor’s strengths, but it practically sings when the cast is all together. There’s a lovely extended scene in the middle of the film where most of the cast are brought together in the living room, and they play off each other perfectly. In particular, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro just have this electric interaction, which simultaneously demonstrates the young actress’ talent while proving the older actor has still got it.
As much as it is an ensemble piece, though, the film is anchored in the two leading performances. Playing these sorts of damaged characters is incredibly tough. It’s easy for a performance to seem over-the-top or self-conscious. Cooper finds himself playing a character who jogs while wearing a bin liner and who is prone to talk to himself for extended periods. It’s a very heavy dramatic weight for an actor to bear, and Cooper carries it off. His portrayal of Pat is hard to resist, even though we can see right through Pat’s delusions about the state of his marriage or his repeated attempts to shirk responsibility.
Russell’s direction subtly toys with Pat’s bipolar disorder, without seeming gimmicky or trying to force the point. There are some sequences during the movie (particularly involving Dash Mihok’s police officer) that seem a little… off, a subtle indicator that things are not quite what they seem. Characters occasionally say things that seem counter-intuitive or counter-productive to Pat, and there’s the faintest hint that his perception of events is skewed. When we first hear his brother’s voice, for an instant, it seems to come from a portrait on the wall. It’s never obvious or overstated – after all, the point is that Pat can’t distinguish these segues from reality – and Russell’s direction of these moments is more effective for being understated.
However, while Cooper is great, Jennifer Lawrence is exceptional. She has this incredible screen presence for a relatively young actress, and her chemistry with Cooper (who, to be fair, has always been a generous co-star) is absolutely charming. The script gives them a lot to work with, but there’s this wonderful sense of two very scarred and off-balance people who are able to relate to the damage that they see in the other. Pat is instinctively protective of Tiffany, while Tiffany sees that Pat needs some motivation in his life.
There’s a wonderfully frank dialogue between the pair (“you think I’m crazier than you are?” one demands over dinner), but there’s also a sense that each needs something from the other – and that neither is being entirely honest with the other or themselves. It’s the kind of relationship that is very difficult to convey on film, and this film’s success is the result of a perfect harmony between the script and the actors involved. It’s a wonderful thing to see.
And it’s that very human interaction that anchors Silver Linings Playbook, allowing the film to touch on these sorts of ideas without being stiff or cheesy. At the heart of Silver Linings Playbook is the idea that everybody is a little unbalanced in their own way. Is Pat’s father’s game-day ritual (dismissed as OCD by his son), any less insane than Pat’s violent outburst when confronted by a terrible situation? Is Pat’s friend Ronnie any saner with his constant sense of suffocation and stress and his solo-thrash-rock sessions in the garage to Metallica and Megadeth?
There’s a wonderful empathy at the heart of Silver Linings Playbook. It never belittles the psychological pressures that confront Tiffany and Pat, but it is compassionate in how it handles them. It’s the sort of deft approach that we should really see more of, and it’s sad that this sensitive and yet candid handling is very much the exception rather than the rule when it comes to mental illness on film.
Silver Linings Playbook is sweet and sincere, without ever being saccharine. It comes very highly recommended.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | bradley cooper, Chris Tucker, David O. Russell, Fighter, film, Jennifer Lawrence, Mental breakdown, Mental disorder, Mental Health, Movie, non-review review, Pat, review, robert deniro, Russell, Silver Linings Playbook, Tiffany