Look around Hollywood and you get the feeling that the art of the romance movie is either dying or has been dead for some time. Romance as a genre term has practically been replaced by the phrase “rom-com,” and the only alternatives are gooey teen-geared fare (“Twilight” or a Nicholas Sparks adaptation) or the occasional period love story. “Silver Linings Playbook” doesn’t fit any one category, and perhaps therein is its bit of genius.
Although you can’t exactly put label on and file away director David O. Russell’s follow-up to his heavily awarded ensemble drama “The Fighter,” that’s not to say this new film is completely unique. Rather, it tells a predictable romance in an unconventional fashion.
As part comedy, “Silver Linings” has none of the dramatic weight of “The Fighter” or quite the same storytelling power, but both films share one critical thing in common: convincing turns from an ace ensemble cast. Russell loves familial dysfunction, and while the stakes never feel quite as high as “The Fighter” (that’s the last comparison), the performances have this touching humility to them. Russell clearly has a penchant for getting the best from his talent.
Stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence receive a special opportunity to take their already proven talent to another level as Pat and Tiffany, two people recovering from recent past traumas with diagnosed mental issues and boatloads of sexual tension. At the same time, as much of an excuse as they have to let their characters snap without warning, they still have to make it convincing and they do.
Cooper’s Pat comes home to live with his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro) in Philadelphia after the court has allowed for his release from a mental institution in Baltimore. Although he refuses to take meds, we meet Pat in a place where he’s on the mend, or at least believes he has the tools to overcome his past: stay positive, work to make yourself better and and look for the silver lining. The trouble is he’s still hung up about his wife, Nikki, who is directly connected to the source of his issues.
In taking the steps that he believes will allow Nikki to love him again, Pat meets Tiffany, whose husband died recently. She has her own philosophy for coping, and becomes a major curveball in Pat’s self-prescribed plan. Her connection to Nikki through her older sister Veronica (Julia Styles) further complicates her and Pat’s relationship.
“Silver Linings” dances around a bit when it comes to its core thread. Pat and Tiffany’s relationship and complicated “romance” (it becomes clear from their first scene together that they have chemistry and will end up entangled romantically somehow) is definitely the centerpiece of the film, but it constantly shifts lenses. At first it appears to be about mental illness, then it morphs into a story about acceptance, then it focuses on making connections, then it becomes about perspectives, etc. These are all valid and generally related ideas, but the film drifts through them and the script never makes any deep cathartic breakthroughs as a result.
That’s when you have to start peeling back the many layers of “Silver Linings Playbook” to see it as a romance story and family drama. As complicated as things are between Pat and Tiffany, the essence of their relationship can be identified as a need for an honest connection, to not let the past or the judgments of others complicate what is clearly pure chemistry.
The parallels to the film’s family relationships are clear, though the romantic and family threads aren’t quite interconnected until a plot device at the end binds them all together.
In his best role in years, De Niro plays a caring but emotionally distant father obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles. He has turned to bookmaking after losing his job and it has brought out the worst of his superstitious compulsions. His own fixation mirrors his son’s, yet they are both too blinded to see the similarities in their differences.
Relationship dynamics are at the heart of any ensemble film and the praise tends to get limited to acting, but Russell’s direction could be the unsung hero of “Silver Linings” among general audiences. His camera is particularly active for a film in this genre cluster and it results in several angles and takes that add to the relationship tension. There’s also an almost frenetic pacing at times that he uses to capture some of the mental instability of the main characters. It can be a frustrating tactic, but it forces us to relate to the characters by experiencing the film as they experience the world, Pat specifically.
Russell occasionally veers into comic territory as well with his technique. “Silver Linings” draws a lot of its humor from dysfunction between characters both in written dialogue and physicality of performance, but Russell — in a way that feels spontaneous — gives the humor an extra bite so we realize we’re also supposed to be enjoying ourselves while watching the film.
“Silver LInings Playbook” could at any time take a turn for the heavy side of things given the material, but Russell’s choice to lean a bit more toward his quirkier roots gives it a real crowd-pleasing quality. The decidedly romantic and satisfying ending definitely assures this, but arguably of more importance, the choice accurately reflects the film’s message of optimism, to see things with a certain perspective.
So despite not always being cohesive and movingly eloquent, “Silver Linings Playbook” entertains and never apologizes for what it is — or isn’t.
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by David O. Russell, Matthew Quick (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver