A lot of critics have lost their proverbial cool over Silver Linings Playbook, a rom-com about mental illness, ballroom dancing and the Philadelphia Eagles. I wish I knew why. It’s a slow, repetitive, meandering, mostly overacted little picture—perfectly agreeable but nothing special, and directed with a steamroller by David O. Russell. Go figure.
I have never been able to tolerate the pointless, meat-headed, masturbatory cinema of self-indulgent writer-director Mr. Russell, especially the moronic Spanking the Monkey (1994), the criminally boring Three Kings (1999) and the profoundly pretentious I Heart Huckabees, which poisoned the ozone in 2004. Six years passed, and I was shaken to my shoelaces by The Fighter (2010), the most powerful study of a down-and-out boxer since Rod Serling’s classic Requiem for a Heavyweight. The ridiculously titled Silver Linings Playbook, not in the same league as The Fighter, doesn’t do for Bradley Cooper what that movie did for Mark Wahlberg, but it does suggest that the eccentric Mr. Russell has learned a few things about where to place a camera and how to stage small scenes that add up to a satisfying whole.
For starters there’s Bradley Cooper, who’s built a solid following by devoting his entire career to trashy comedies, proving again that you can’t go broke reducing the IQs of the most undemanding segment of the public. So we got assorted loathsome Hangover Xeroxes, and Mr. Cooper got a People magazine cover. But unless you were one of the lucky theatergoers who caught his resplendent performance last summer in the sold-out production of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, then you have no idea what a prodigious talent he is. He will probably continue full-throttle turning out junk, giving his fans what they want, but I suspect that deep down inside, where his pride is, he wants to prove he can act. The movie is a mess, but there is some evidence that Mr. Russell kicked and nudged and tweaked his star into doing something besides resting on his George Clooney charm and Pepsodent smile. He actually does some acting.
He plays Pat, a bipolar substitute high-school history teacher and former athlete who returns home to Philadelphia after an eight-month meltdown in a mental hospital. Subject to irrational mood swings and violent rages, he went ballistic when his wife cheated with another faculty member. Pat beat up the guy and lost his job, his marriage, his house and his freedom, and he was sent away on a plea bargain. Now he’s back in town, in the custody of his dysfunctional parents, and determined to get back in shape, rebuild his life and win his wife back. His father (Robert De Niro), who is as crazy as he is, just wants Pat to return to what matters most in life—the religion of worshipping the Philadelphia Eagles. Meanwhile, Pat runs, works out, wears garbage bags to sweat, dispenses fun facts about American history while breaking his wife’s restraining order, and wakes his parents in the middle of the night ranting about Ernest Hemingway. Between tirades, he meets an emotionally disturbed widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who has been fired from her job after having sex with 11 people in her office. Tiffany can compare prescription antidepressants with Pat faster than you can win Bingo at a Friday night rehab social.
Pat is on his way back down the mouse-hole, and who can blame him? His best friend from the hospital (Chris Tucker) is a perennial escapee who is forever inventing legal technicalities that never quite hold up when men in white shoes ring the doorbell carrying straitjackets. Tiffany, who turned goth slut after her policeman husband was killed playing Good Samaritan on his way home from buying lingerie at Victoria’s Secret, offers to reunite Pat with his wife if he will partner with her in a dance competition. During long rehearsals in the garage to songs by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, a mutual attraction blossoms, thwarted by awkward idiosyncrasies that keep the movie moving from one absurdity to another.
The football part of the movie—about how Pat’s crazy father, family members and friends bet their life savings and future on an Eagles game in a parlay that depends on at least a 5-point score in the dance competition—is so confusing I never did figure it out, and couldn’t care less. (Seems the father, who has been banned from the Eagles stadium for repeatedly starting riots, has invested everything in his beloved team in the hope of financing a cheesesteak business.) None of this makes sense, which is about par for a David O. Russell movie. It all ends in what would ordinarily seem anticlimactic, except for one thing: how can anything be anticlimactic if there isn’t much of a movie to precede it? Mr. De Niro hasn’t bothered to give a real performance for at least the past 10 years and he shows no signs of breaking precedent here. There’s nothing wrong with the overrated Jennifer Lawrence that some serious acting lessons couldn’t improve. The rest of the actors are pretty much on their own. Nothing mature or thoughtful here, which leaves Mr. Cooper to carry the show alone. He’s played it comfortable and he’s played it safe. Showing it’s fun to be bipolar, he could have played it like Jerry Lewis. Instead, he’s starting to realize the rewards of taking acting to a deeper level.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
Running Time 120 minutes
Written by David O. Russell
and Matthew Quick (novel)
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro