To quote Kate Winslet in the third episode of Ricky Gervais’ popular sitcom Extras, “you’re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” Bizarrely, in the case of Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, that could very well be correct. For this isn’t your usual romantic-comedy. It’s about crazies so it’s got depth… supposedly. For this film has been eaten up by critics and the Oscar voters alike as a refreshing and exciting new direction for the now incredibly stale genre. It is certainly the type of film that was bound to get plenty of attention during award season. I think we all have to be thankful that Russell’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated The Fighter wasn’t also set during World War 2 otherwise Cooper would be a certainty for the Academy Award for Best Actor. So it was in the midst of all this hype that audiences flocked to see two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars step into the quirky and thought-provoking world of mentally ill romantic-comedy. But could it live up to it?
Silver Linings Playbook follows the story of former teacher Pat who suffers a breakdown after he discovers his wife partaking in some afternoon delight with a colleague. We meet him after an eight month stint in psychiatric hospital where he was attempting to come to terms with bipolar disorder. Being removed from the facilities against the wishes of his doctors, he finds himself back in his childhood home with his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro). He is keen to return to his old life and prove that he can stick to his new, positive outlook: to prove that he can find his ‘silver lining’.
Bradley Cooper cannot be described as the most subtle of actors but he brings a certain frenzied energy to some of Pat’s more manic episodes. All in all though his performance is pretty one-note. Pat is completely motivated by his delusional belief that he is cured and that proof of this will get his wife back. He is not the easiest character to root for and Cooper’s frantic, wide-eyed portrayal of a volatile man coming to terms with bipolar often becomes tedious and far too intense. It gets to the point when it almost doesn’t feel as if Pat’s bipolar is actually that big a deal. It just seems like it’s one of those silly little quirks that people have. Rather than being ill Pat simply has strong feelings about certain songs, is quick to anger and has an obsessive desire to look on the bright side. He doesn’t provide any real drama here and you can’t help but feel that he’d fit better in a Wes Anderson film than he does here.
Thankfully, to offset this, Pat and the audience are offered a certain amount of respite with the introduction of troubled widow Tiffany. Still coming to terms with the death of her husband, the young woman becomes fixated on Pat Jr. and orchestrates her way into get closer to him. She proposes a deal in which she gets messages to and from Pat’s wife (bypassing that pesky restraining) if he helps her take part in a charity dance competition. This premise all sounds rather silly and it often feels like Russell is trying a bit too hard to seem quirky and unusual. However, Jennifer Lawrence does remarkably well to bring us another incredible performance. She brings a depth and emotion to Tiffany that we never see anywhere in Cooper’s Pat. She may be close to him in terms of craziness but she definitely outclasses him on the sympathetic scale. You want Tiffany to succeed much more than you ever want Pat to. Lawrence also does a great job when interacting with the other cast and there are several moments, during which Tiffany attempts to out-crazy the two Pats, which are simply splendid. In fact, the big showdown between DeNiro and Lawrence is one of the stand-out moments of the whole show.
As with so many films of this type the best moments occur in the first 30 minutes or so. This is thanks to the comic potential garnered from Pat’s transition from hospital to the big wide world. There is a great deal of glee to be had in his ruthless honesty and the discomfort it creates for everyone else. Even Cooper’s bull-in-a-china-shop style performance provides some great moments, such as his sudden insistence that he must work his way through his estranged wife’s literature syllabus before deeming it to be full of damaging messages about life. However, the narrative quickly changes pace when Tiffany is introduced and it becomes painfully clear what is about to happen. We move into obvious and stereotypical romantic-comedy territory with everyone’s future happiness becoming linked to the outcome of a football game and the dance competition. The unusual premise that had a great deal of potential quickly descends into something quite forgettable and frustratingly usual. This film doesn’t reinvent the genre, as so many critics would have you believe, it simply adds some mentally unstable characters into a narrative that even the laziest rom-com writers would reject.
Anyway, being surrounded by this many neurotic and eccentric characters, even Pat and Tiffany don’t really seem that outrageous. The supporting cast itself is fairly hit and miss with both DeNiro and Weaver doing the best they can with the material that is being offered to them. DeNiro in particular does a fine job considering he flits between an emotional father trying to reconnect with his son and a farcical version of a man suffering from OCD and a dependency on sporting superstition. The more sentimental moments between the two Pats show that DeNiro still has a great deal to offer but Pat Sr.’s more exaggerated moments played out for comic gain become fairly tiresome. Another brief shining light comes in the form of Chris Tucker’s (I know it confused me too) Danny, Pat’s friend from the hospital. Danny isn’t really important to the plot so he is simply played for comic effect.
I can’t say that I didn’t like this film but, like Black Sawn, it credits itself with more intelligence than it actually possesses. It offers a great deal that it simply never lives up to. You cannot create a new and interesting perspective on this genre by just adding characters suffering from different mental illnesses into a completely bland situation. If these characters had no psychiatric problems this film would have been brushed off as a pathetic affair but, as it stands, all Hollywood needs is a bit of bipolar and OCD to create a masterpiece. We are being lead to believe this is One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest meets When Harry Met Sally but the actual results is as corny, contrived and over-sentimental as even the worst Jennifer Aniston rom-com. If it wins any of the many awards it has been nominated for it just goes to show Hollywood is as shallow and predictable as Ricky Gervais accuses it of being.