Sometimes the power of positive thinking seems more acceptable when the people spouting it have been to hell and back. It’s a sympathetic reflex–if they think that will help them get their shit together, might as well let them try. Silver Linings Playbook softens us up with this technique, but the conditioning only goes so far. There’s a precise cutoff point when it goes from indie dramedy to straight-up rom-com; it’s as if Jennifer Lawrence were being replaced by Jennifer Aniston, and Bradley Cooper was being swapped out with, well, Bradley Cooper.
Not to rag on the guy. My main impression of him still comes from The Hangover, which he coasted through like an apotheosized frat boy. He had a leading-man stick up his ass, but none of the charisma that he shows here–a good-humored and sly satire of charisma that blurs it with crazy. The movie starts with his character, Pat, being let out of an institution that treated him for bipolar disorder; he’d caught his wife in the shower with another man, and socked the philanderer hard enough to squeeze a restraining order out of him. And Pat’s wife. So it’s Pat’s mission to convince her that he’s in shape and in control. We all know that isn’t going to happen; it’s just not the nature of the game. But the director, David O. Russell, postpones the inevitable with a vision of working-class Philadelphia that’s all loose screws. Diagnosed or not, everybody’s got something that someone could prescribe a pill for. But it’s not a broadside about our culture of medication–rather, it vindicates a society in which neurosis is the norm. The movie is consciously made in the spirit of the ’70s films of Robert Altman and Paul Mazursky, and even a Scorsese film like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; those directors embraced kooky Americana in all its jaggedness. Russell knows how to externalize mania in a way that layers anxiety upon anxiety–especially in the sound design–and, somehow, the immediacy of Masanobu Takayanagi’s handheld camera never gets stale.
But there’s a moment when Robert De Niro, as Pat’s book-making father, comes around to Tiffany, Lawrence’s nymphomanical widow, with his trademark puff of the lip and jerk of the wrist, and it’s as if he’s raising a white flag on behalf of his generation. That’s a dramatic way of putting it, I admit, but the movie takes to contrivance like a junkie and its focus-group concessions start to jump out of the woodwork: Oh, I get it, they’ve thrown in some football for the guys and a dance contest for the girls. Even Pat’s family being what’s-a-matta-you Italian seems suspect. To the film’s credit, however, enough good will spills over from the first half to make the betrayal of the second bearable–at least to me. (Bearable–even peppy–but not believable.) Maybe it’s because this is the rare movie where everybody has something to prove and yet nobody has a chip on his or her shoulder. Lawrence comes at us like a juggernaut of tightly wound emotions that clash with Pat’s aloof magical thinking; she may be compensating a bit for the tentativeness of her sylvan heroines, but her drive spills over into the role. Russell, for his part, makes it clear that Silver Linings Playbook belongs to the same chapter of his smorgasbord career as The Fighter; the charm of these bald attempts at inspiration makes one think that maybe he’s been to hell and back.