Mental illness is always a tough subject to cover from a comedic standpoint; you always have to walk a tightrope between insensitivity and humor. It’s very easy to play it for cheap cruel laughs and very hard to make it enjoyable entertainment. Now with that out the way, David O’ Russell’s latest film, Silver Linings Playbook, is a character drama with a dark comedic streak about a guy just trying to figure out how to get through life that simply excels at walking that tightrope.
The films begins with Pat (Bradley Cooper) sitting inside a Baltimore institution after having a violent outbreak when he found his wife in the shower with another man. He has been diagnosed as Bi-Polar and is learning to deal with life through a new lens. He has convinced himself that he can win the affection of his wife back and that it’s up to him to better himself so she can love him again. He has dedicated himself to that task completely; he’s reading more, he’s getting in better shape, and working on focusing his rage into finding the “silver linings” in situations. When his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) comes and checks him, it’s clear he’s made some progress. He’s already lost 20 lb, but isn’t using the medication he’s prescribed to because he finds it clouds his thoughts and tries to deter him from his goal of reuniting with his wife.
But on the outside, Pat is struggling. He has outbursts, he violates restraining orders, he refuses to listen to his court assigned therapist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) and has constant quarries with his father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who is frustrated by Pat’s behavior and his inability to let go. One evening, Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) invites Pat to dinner. Pat sees this as a prime opportunity for him, as Ronnie’s wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) is Nikki’s best friend. So if he show he can behave, he’s one step closer to Nikki. Also at dinner is Veronica’s newly widowed sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). A mutual loathing of their situations and conditions creates a companionship between Tiffany and Pat, which serves as the backbone of the film.
The meeting of Pat and Tiffany is where Silver Linings Playbook really takes off, as Tiffany offers Pat both an outlet to win back Nikki and stay out of trouble. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper have great chemistry together, with Lawrence doing most of the heavy lifting. But they both work great as two unhinged people coming together for a common goal. Jennifer Lawrence continues to show that she’s not just one of the best young actresses in Hollywood, but one of the best in general. The role of Pat is Bradley Cooper’s best performance, and is very well balanced. Cooper handles the role with just the right blend of rage and sadness, giving Bi-Polar a realistic and sympathetic face. Robert De Niro’s performance as a superstitious Eagles fan is the best work he has done in the past few years and is an essential part of the film. Chris Tucker also shines in a very contained performance as a friend Pat made in the institution.
The thing that keeps this film out of a saccharine gutter is the comedy. David O. Russell knows what he’s doing with family dynamics. The Fighter was a movie about a boxer, but it more a film about a boxer’s dysfunctional family. He brings some of the similar elements to Silver Lining Playbook, but injects a real amount of humor into an otherwise sensitive situation. This is a film that is going to best very popular around award season, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a film that blends an awkward comedy to some of the darkest sides of family life, and comes out on top. Silver Linings Playbook is one of 2012’s best.