I’m one of the biggest David O. Russell apologists you’ll ever meet. I will go to my grave defending I Heart Huckabees, and I was trying to put my finger on exactly what it is that I like so much about his movies despite the many, easily-made arguments to the contrary. My first thought was: how many other filmmakers could make your traditional two-attractive-white-people-fall-in-love rom-com, and still have you leaving the theater thinking, “God, what an odd film.” That’s what David O. Russell does with Silver Linings Playbook.
It helps some that the two attractive white people in question are Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and I don’t think it’s too strong to say that I’d pay $500 to watch them f*ck. Still, getting me to want to watch them almost kiss for two hours requires a somewhat more skilled hand.
We open with Bradley Cooper’s character being released from a mental institution. An “undiagnosed bipolar,” he’s obsessed with his estranged wife, whose affair with a history teacher sent Cooper to the phunny pharm in the first place when he caught them in the act and beat the guy half to death, not to mention gave him a permanent crazy trigger in the form of “My Cherie Amour,” the song that was playing while they were screwing. He wakes up his parents (played by Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro) in the middle of the night to scream about Hemingway (he’s trying to read every book on his wife’s high school English class syllabus) and runs around the neighborhood wearing a shopping bag as a poncho “to help him sweat.” Now, I can tell you that there are few things I’d less rather watch than some Hollywood pretty boy with three-day stubble on his chiseled jaw and a tiny scar on his perfect nose battling some whitewashed version of mental illness that makes insanity look cute and quirky. And this from the director who got his start on a movie about a guy who f*cks his own mother with the title a masturbation reference?
The only explanation I can offer is that David O. Russell is f*cking with us. He’s seeing how many indie rom-com tropes he can juggle at the same time and still make it work, with one big twist: Brad Cooper is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a penis. Don’t believe me? Look at Brad Cooper wearing that trashbag and tell me he doesn’t remind you of Natalie Portman wearing a rugby scrum cap in Garden State.
As perfect a work of trope identification as the MPDG was, the one problem I always had with it was the “manic” part (they aren’t necessarily “manic,” are they?). But here Cooper’s character is literally manic depressive. He begins and ends the film without a single professional goal, hobbie, or dream of his own, and effects the world only by offering love and validation to the other characters.
Various other tropes at work:
- The token black friend who teaches the white characters to dance (Chris Tucker, nice to see him out of Brett Ratner’s cheetos-stained hands here)
- Familiar song as macguffin
- The hilariously-accented foreigner giving glib advice (Cooper’s Indian psychiatrist, Cliff)
- The overshadowing sibling (played by Nucky Thompson’s brother, Shea Whigham, who apparently only plays brothers)
- Sports as a metaphor for love and family (Cooper is DeNiro’s good-luck charm for Eagles games)
- Daddy issues
- The quirky-crazy protagonist constantly repeating his mantra (Cooper is always looking for silver linings the same way What About Bob was taking baby steps)
- The sports-hating girl who’s secretly a sports genius
- Discovering your true love was there all along, disguised as a super-attractive platonic friend
- The climactic, end-of-the-movie dance recital in which the protagonists are hopelessly outmatched (a la Little Miss Sunshine)
- The contrived second-act complication that could’ve been easily avoided if one character just told another a simple truth
- Overwhelming stereotypicality – Brad Cooper’s dad Robert DeNiro lives in Philly, so of course he loves the Eagles and is saving his money to open a cheesesteak shop (!!!)
The ensemble cast are all so committed and have such chemistry together that they’re always believable, and David O. Russell’s skill at staging big, rapid-fire, multi-part farce makes it endlessly watchable in that stagey-but-you-don’t-care, His Girl Friday kind of way (see also: Flirting with Disaster). And yet the writing always makes it half feel like we’re being trolled. Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t totally work as a rom-com or as a critique of rom-coms, but somehow the fact that it’s trying to be both makes it bizarrely fascinating. You can find yourself simultaneously laughing at the genre clichés and rooting for the main characters to get together.
I don’t know if David O. Russell has ever had an idea that wasn’t hopelessly convoluted, but the energy he puts into flailing around trying to explain it to you has a charm all its own. Silver Linings Playbook might be his most convoluted film yet, and somehow also his cutest.