Let’s say this up front: Mental illness isn’t funny. If you’ve ever spent the better part of a day attempting to calm someone who is going through a psychological breakdown, you know the truth of this statement. Mental illness, however, is what gives David O. Russell’s movie “Silver Linings Playbook” its emotional boost.
At heart, Russell’s movie is a romance. It’s obvious from the beginning that Russell’s two main characters are made for each other. Question is, how will they navigate the messy waters of personal and family dysfunction well enough to discover what we already know: that together they are stronger than they could ever be enduring life alone?
We first meet Pat – played by Bradley Cooper – in a mental hospital. Confined there by the court for beating a man nearly to death who was having an affair with his wife, Pat is on the verge of release. And he is energized. Not because he wants to start life anew. He wants to restart his old life. With his wife. Despite the fact that she has moved on. And despite the restraining order that prevents him from contacting her in any form.
Hey, no problem. Pat moves in with his parents – Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. He runs to get in shape. A former teacher himself, he begins to read the entire syllabus of his English-teacher wife so that they can share her love of literature. The meds he is supposed to be taking make him feel fuzzy, so he avoids them, even when everyone – from his parents to the meddlesome neighborhood cop to his therapist – warns him what’s likely to happen if he doesn’t.
Then Tiffany – Jennifer Lawrence – enters the scene. The sister-in-law of Pat’s best friend, Tiffany has problems of her own. When her police officer husband died suddenly, she went off the rails, using sex as a defense against the feelings that were haunting her, which led to her losing her job. She, too, is dependent on her parents, living in the family garage, which she has converted into a dance studio. Just as Pat sees his wife as his savior, Tiffany sees a local dance competition as her way to some sort of healing. All she lacks, really, is a partner.
And now you’re telling yourself, “Right, I’ve seen this film before.” Well, yes. But also no. Yes, Tiffany convinces Pat – actually, she coerces him – to become her partner. But “Silver Linings Playbook” is no “Saturday Night Fever” meets “Rocky.” The energy that writer-director Russell summons up goes mostly toward depicting each of the film’s characters, from De Niro’s superstitious mania involving gambling on the Philadelphia Eagles to Weaver’s enabling Sunday football-watching meal rituals.
And both of them– along with everyone else – symbolize just how hard life can be and how crazy the strategies are that we come up with just to get by.
Russell has visited this world before, in such films as “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster.” Here, though, he walks the line between tragedy and comedy with as astute a sense of cinema as 2012 had to offer. “Silver Linings Playbook” says that sometimes it takes a bit of insanity to survive in an insane world.
And out of that irony comes just the right touch of humor.