Rhythm Method
by Michael Koresky

Silver Linings Playbook
Dir. David O. Russell, U.S., The Weinstein Company

Providing evidence that hyper-verbal does not equal hyper-articulate, the characters in the latest David O. Russell film are constantly firing blanks on all cylinders. Once you get into the rhythms of Russell’s adaptation of the novel The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick—about a thirtysomething man in a Philadelphia suburb with bipolar disorder trying to get his life on track and win back his estranged wife after getting released from a mental health facility—it becomes fairly easy to predict how each scene will play out. The camera will volley between characters hurling rapid-fire dialogue at each other, and at least one will storm off in a huff after dropping a truth bomb; words are weapons, interactions are confrontations. The result is less classical screwball than studied cacophony.

As Russell showed in Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, and The Fighter, he prefers characters given to rat-a-tat-tat exchanges, making even the smallest conversation seem highly combative. The effect is like a steamroller; his films plow ahead with such abandon that it’s often difficult to remember what happened in each prior scene. One might feel obliged to drag out the old line that “form equals content” in Silver Linings Playbook, as it’s a fractured (if easily digestible and streamlined) film about fractured folks, choppy and angry. Because the characters have no filters, the film grants itself carte blanche to say everything on its mind. This leads to a constant stream of emotional fireworks that leaves little room for nuance, and justifies characters written to express everything they feel at all times; thus nothing is concealed, and there is little for the audience to do other than just watch as these people wend their ways to inevitable redemptions.

Initially, Silver Linings Playbook seems to be moving to some striking, curious internal tempo—there’s an infectious idiosyncracy to the film’s opening moments, as Bradley Cooper’s Pat is released from his eight-month psychiatric-observation stint, and is picked up by his mom, Dolores (a dotty, mannered Jacki Weaver, suppressing her Australian accent with minor success). His friend from the inside, Danny (Chris Tucker), hitches a ride, and the two men share a rambling intensity that promises not only a genuinely askew comic vision but also an ideal of Russell’s brand of neuroses. The actors’ honed personas are slyly subverted—Cooper’s cool indifference registers as simmering hostility; Tucker’s motor-mouth energy is effectively clipped with notable stutters—and bounce off each other elegantly. These interactions intimate an unromanticized portrait of mental illness that the film ultimately isn’t interested in; instead, as it’s soon clear, Silver Linings Playbook is the latest bromidic, self-help-through-love feel-gooder. This undiagnosed bipolar headcase with severe stress and mood swings (who found a man in the shower with his wife and proceeded to beat him to within an inch of his life) just needs the embrace of a good-woman-who-understands-his-pain-but-doesn’t-let-him-get-away-with-any-nonsense.™

That Russell follows a basic romantic comedy template should not in and of itself be a reason to distrust Silver Linings Playbook. It’s infinitely more off-putting that the film seems to assume its audience’s immediate belief in its main couple’s adorability, solely for their shared mild psychological derangements. Cooper’s Pat first meets Jennifer Lawrence’s young widow Tiffany at a dinner party held by her sister, Veronica (Julia Stiles, in a grotesque portrait of emasculating materialism for the ages), the wife of Pat’s friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz). The two trade barbs and name-drop their favorite prescription medications—Klonipin, Trazodone, Lithium—the mere mention of each anxiety or depression pill meant to elicit sighs of acknowledgment from audience members who for the most part will have never taken any of them. Already we are invited to feel a twinge of superiority to these grasping, tragic suburbanites who can only connect through disconnection.

Other than Cooper and Lawrence’s nicely contrasting looks (Cooper’s mix-and-match face, with his feminine eyes perched atop awkwardly jutting features, and Lawrence’s puffy, squinty roundness seem immediately at odds), Pat and Tiffany are an unremittingly abrasive couple, and the development of their relationship makes for enervating cinema. On several occasions, Pat, who exercises to take out his aggression, jogs through his neighborhood in his regular ensemble of sweat-suit and garbage bag, runs into Tiffany, the two make their resentments of one another loudly known, and they proceed to scamper through the streets, screaming at each other. The film pushes the convention of mutual resentment hiding blossoming attraction to its breaking point: we’re asked to share in their growing attraction simply because they’re movie characters, not because anything they say or do seems to merit each other’s or our attention. Pat is mostly remarkable for suppressing his violent tendencies and for being socially tone-deaf enough to wear a DeSean Jackson Eagles jersey to a dinner party, while Tiffany is the unashamed product of a damaged past that speaks more to Quick and Russell’s paltry and ever-so-slightly misogynist imaginations than any need to carefully penetrate a character’s core: her way of dealing with her psychological traumas was to fuck eleven people at her former office. Some of these were women, she teasingly tells Pat, who’s practically salivating as though it’s the start of a Penthouse letter.

As she’s our designated hot new thing, Lawrence has been winning raves for playing Tiffany with unshakable poise; this isn’t surprising since our culture loves attitude-overloaded ingénues with edges of vulnerability sanded off. (Remember that Ellen Page came very close to winning an Oscar for Juno.) Lawrence plays nearly every scene with the same static, imperturbable gait, her dark eyes narrowed and locked on whatever prey is in her general vicinity. We are meant to believe that this early twentysomething’s sadnesses have made her worldly and wise—though her behavior tends to the erratic, when she has advice to offer Pat, it’s usually a pearl (e.g. “You’re scared of life!”). Both sagacious and pugnacious, Lawrence’s Tiffany is a seductive movie construct, tailor made for a young star whose strong suit is a tough physicality (as shown in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games), but no more real-world convincing than this.

If Silver Linings Playbook has a lived-in character who seems to spring from genuine unruliness it’s Robert De Niro’s Pat Sr., whose latent hostilities (he once beat up a fellow sportsfan at an Eagles game and was banned from the stadium for life) are meant to provide rationale for his son’s troubles. Though the script loudly telegraphs a mild sins-of-the-father narrative, De Niro imbues Pat Sr. with subtle warmth, befuddlement, and genuine desire to connect, so that his every scene shared with Cooper seems like an attempt at his penitence. In a film that takes mood swings as its subject and unifying aesthetic, only De Niro makes erratic behavior feel internalized. Otherwise, we are treated to broad sketches and types: aside from Stiles’s controlling wife, we get Shea Whigham as Pat’s chop-busting older sibling, who behaves in a manner only slightly more plausibly than Adam Scott in Stepbrothers; and Tucker’s Danny, who, after that encouraging opening, is relegated to instructing Cooper how to dance more like a black man.

In an early scene, Pat throws Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms out of his bedroom window in a rage at its tragic conclusion, and proceeds to wake his parents up with a rant about the importance of happy endings. Russell seems philosophically in step with Pat, as Silver Linings Playbook careers toward a series of applause-ready contrivances, capped off by Pat informing the audience in voiceover, “I’m a very lucky guy.” It’s not worth going into detail about how Pat and Tiffany’s pursuit of love and happiness takes them to a semiprofessional ballroom-dancing contest, or that the film’s wildly crowd-pleasing wrap-up also involves Pat Sr. almost betting away a chunk of his family’s fortune on an Eagles game. These head-whipping convolutions are surely part of the point, an attempt at a madcap comedy for the overmedicated age. But it’s an ADD movie that somehow feels too centered (in its genre) while at the same time has zero gravity. Whatever emotional tension it offers is the same gleaned from any number of Hollywood romcoms that move from a punch to a kiss. Russell doesn’t need to make genuinely messy movies, but Silver Linings Playbook is a film about messy people that’s as neat as a pin.