Have you ever watched someone self-destruct? Have you listened to their irrational, nearly incoherent rants and tried in vain to make them see reason? Have you stood helplessly by as they allowed one opportunity for real growth after another to pass by and chose, instead, to give in to old, destructive habits? If you’ve never witnessed any of this, watching the film Silver Linings Playbook will likely give you some insight into that world. And afterward, I’m sure, you’ll count yourself lucky.
It’s a difficult thing to watch someone effectively destroy his/her life, especially if you happen to care for that person. Such are the circumstances for Pat and Dolores Solitano (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver, respectively), whose son, Patrick, Jr. (Bradley Cooper) has just come out of an inpatient mental health facility. Eight months prior, Patrick suffered a violent psychotic break after finding his wife in the shower with another man. Spending eight months in an inpatient treatment center was the bargain he made to get out of jail time. This is where SLP begins. Patrick returns home to his parents’ house in Philadelphia and really seems to be holding his own. He clings with almost manic desperation to the optimistic outlook he learned in treatment – to find the silver lining and focus only on it in any and every situation. He’s determined to win back his estranged wife, Nikki, through optimism and exercise. The plan is to show her, by taking such good care of himself and sticking to his new positive outlook, how well he’s doing.
The only hitch, Nikki has taken out a restraining order against him, one that’s strictly enforced by local law enforcement. Before long, Pat meets Tiffany, the sister of his best friend’s wife, a young woman who’s recently had some mental health issues of her own. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) lost her husband not long ago and subsequently fell into a severe depression, which caused her to act out sexually and become the talk of the town. Also determined to turn her life around, she agrees to help Pat contact Nikki under the radar of the restraining order in exchange for his help in realizing a dream of her own.
The plot is interesting, though simple enough and the outcome can be predicted from pretty early on. What makes SLP work so well is a combination of excellent dialogue courtesy of David O. Russell (writer/director) and Matthew Quick (writer of the novel on which the film is based) and the authentic, engaged performances of all the key players. The dialogue is whip-smart and loaded with clinical mental health terminology but not so much that it goes above any heads or pokes fun at its audience. It isn’t ironic or overly dramatic. It’s genuine and infused with enough humor that is never takes itself too seriously. This movie is actually pretty funny; I laughed out loud a lot, despite the heavy subject matter and sometimes painful realism. Director David O. Russell constructs every scene to feel completely natural and evokes some of this year’s finest performances from his cast. Bradley Cooper has never been this good. Ever. Robert DeNiro hasn’t been this good in some years and damn, is it refreshing to see him having fun and fully engaged in a role again. More than once during the flick’s two-hour run time, I thought: This is why I love him so much. Jacki Weaver plays the doting mother perfectly and supporting roles from Chris Tucker, Paul Herman and John Ortiz solidify the “we’re all in this together” tone. If I had to pick just one stand-out, though, it would be Jennifer Lawrence. She plays Tiffany with a fierce authenticity, nailing that combination of vulnerability and willfulness perfectly. I asked earlier if you’ve ever had to watch someone self-destruct. I have and I’m guessing Jennifer Lawrence has, too, because she wholly inhabits the role of someone with self-destructive tendencies.
David O. Russell fully captures the family dynamics at play between someone with emotional instability and his family. Everything about the film works -the working class neighborhood, the simultaneous affection and tension between father and son, the worried but sympathetic mother, Patrick’s bi-polar mood swings and Tiffany’s willful stubbornness. Silver Linings Playbook may not be the most complex tale ever told, but it will make you laugh, make you cringe (sometimes simultaneously), break your heart with its realism but also give you hope because amidst the struggles and the heartache, there is the community of family and friends, the promise of better days ahead, and the joy brought from the ones you love who love you back.