They’re both kooky, and obviously meant for one another. That’s the essential conceit of David O. Russell’s new film, a high-octane effort to modernize screwball comedy by employing mental disorder as a plot device to give it edginess. In the end, however, the writer-director’s frantic approach merely accentuates the fact that the picture is depressingly conventional. That’s the cloud lurking in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Bradley Cooper, trying hard to exhibit a wild side but still remarkably bland, is Pat Solitano, Jr., a bipolar Philadelphia fellow who’s spent eight months in a state mental hospital as part of a plea bargain because he’d beaten up his wife’s lover after finding the two of them together. Released as a result of the efforts of his warmhearted mother Dolores (the wonderful Jacki Weaver), he comes home determined to win back his wife Nicki, who has a restraining order against him. His father, Pat, Sr. (Robert De Niro), who’s lost his job and is now involved in small-time bookmaking, is surprised to see him, but anxious to forge a stronger bond with his son. The means will be his obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, and his superstitious belief that if his boy watches the games with him on TV (he’s been banned from the stadium for fighting), the hometown team will win.
But Pat’s dream of reconnecting with Nicki—which includes reading the book list of his wife’s high school English course and getting back his own substitute job at the school—gets complicated when he bumps into Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the neighborhood’s ferocious free spirit, a tart-tongued widow with a reputation for being a loose woman. Before long they’ve become a sort-of couple, especially after Tiffany has coaxed Pat into becoming her partner in an upcoming dance competition.
The rationale behind that plot turn is the result of the fact that Tiffany is the sister of Veronica (Julia Stiles), who’s close to Nicki; and Tiffany promises to get a note from Pat to her. That’s only the beginning of a large cast of wacky supporting characters. Alice’s husband Ronnie (John Ortiz) is Pat’s best friend, who veers from easygoing friendship to near- hysteria over his own troubles. Danny (Chris Tucker), Pat’s pal from the hospital, shows up, first as an escapee but then as an ex-patient as well, and though more restrained than he was in the “Rush Hour” films, Tucker’s still a firecracker. Anupam Kher, who initially seems an oasis of calm as Pat’s therapist, morphs into an equally impassioned Eagles fan, and the football motif continues with Pat’s older brother Jake (Shea Whigham), who loves him but can’t help but draw comparisons between them.
Russell paces “Silver Linings Playbook” at high speed, in the style of comedies of the forties, and he rejoices in cacophony, encouraging his actors to be forceful, stepping on one another’s lines and exchanging overlapping dialogue; Masanobu Takayanagi’s energetic cinematography and the propulsive editing of Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers add to the effect. But many of the scenes are naturally tinged with darkness, simply because of the running thread of mental disorder. But that increasingly dissipates as the picture nears its predictable conclusion, which features a double climax—one part involving the outcome of an Eagles game and the other that dance competition—followed by a coda in which the love of a good woman seems to have proven a cure for Pat’s condition.
There are bits and pieces of the movie that are engaging—moments of dialogue (like Pat’s late-night diatribe about Hemingway), Weaver’s sympathetic turn, and certainly the performance of De Niro, who’s more committed and far more real here than he’s been in a long while. But though Lawrence brings enormous power to Tiffany, she can never make the relationship with Bradley’s Pat seem real, especially given a late-arriving revelation about it. And though there’s genuine gravity in the sequences in which Dolores and Pa, Sr. have to deal with their son’s periodic outbursts, they never quite jibe with the quieter, happier moments the family shares. And a couple of dinner scenes, one at Ronnie’s house and the other at a diner, are tonally off. So while one respects the film for trying to juggle disparate tones, it never manages to find the proper balance.
Like all of David O. Russell’s pictures, “Silver Linings Playbook” takes risks, which is laudable. But it’s also like most of them in not quite pulling off what it’s trying to do. In terms that Pat, Sr. and his gambling buddies would understand, it’s a bet that just doesn’t pay off.