After a violent episode sparked by losing his house, his job, and his wife in quick succession, a man is released from a state institution and moves back in with his mother and father. He resolves to rebuild his life, remain positive and reunite with his wife. When he meets a mysterious girl with problems of her own, things get complicated.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Having just followed in the footsteps of American Beauty and Slumdog Millionaire, David O. Russell’s The Silver Linings Playbook took the people’s choice award at TIFF this year. Given that those other films eventually took home Oscars, that sounds like a good thing. But after its premiere Silver Linings, which Russell adapted from a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, was treated like a slick Hollywood machine cruising through Toronto, and this award has only enhanced the reverse-condescension. 'Crowd-pleaser" was the sniffy tag it earned early on. As though that’s a bad thing.
The treatment of all this damage is light and even farcical, an approach that might cause problems for some.
In this case I’m not really one to talk about uninformed bias: the Silver Linings trailer made me pretty nervous: neurotic man-child (Bradley Cooper) moves home in the wake of a breakdown, is pursued by nubile but equally nutty young woman (Jennifer Lawrence); a dance-off ensues. And yet rather than settling for a light jog through its path-of-least-resistance specs, the movie itself transcends them on every level, from the darkly funny, sharply written, often bitterly penetrating script to the loose but fully engaged performances to the exhilarating variety and skill of the filmmaking.
Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a Philadelphia high school teacher who at the beginning of the film is negotiating his tentative release from the loony bin. After catching his wife (who looms heavy in Pat’s mind but is only glimpsed in the film) cheating, Pat beats her lover to within an inch of his life; the stint in a mental hospital was part of a plea bargain. Released into the care of his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver, both in rare and wonderful form) and under police supervision, Pat is not quite ready for re-entry.
Lying as low as such a high-strung creature can (Cooper’s sharp features and icy eyes seem to resolve here into a high-octane, bird-of-prey focus), Pat embarks on a plan of self-improvement with the ultimate goal of winning back his wife. The pathologies that led him to the point of crisis are brought into focus slowly, and often in tandem with those of his father, who has mad OCD and a wee problem with rage.
Pat’s plan involves bromides about self-actualisation and silver linings, and a fair bit of running. Out for a neighborhood run is where he keeps encountering Tiffany (Lawrence), a young widow and the sister of his friend’s wife (Julia Stiles and John Ortiz). They bond over their use and subsequent rejection of psychiatric medication and their own proud sense of their difference: 'We’re not liars like they are," Tiffany tells him. They repel over the fact that they’re both still fairly repellant, especially Pat. Pat doesn’t see himself as damaged because he sees damage as a permanent strike against him; fixated on becoming his wife’s ideal, he sees Tiffany (who went through something of a sex addiction after her husband’s death) as the proverbial damaged goods. Tiffany sees and loves her own damage, and is willing to do the same for Pat.
The treatment of all this damage is light and even farcical, an approach that might cause problems for some. But above all it is loving—we observe Pat from outside of himself, and share in the filmmaker’s affectionate but steady gaze. Russell explores and expresses the idea that well-being, as author Jonathan Franzen has put it, is most often a matter of degree rather than kind. Every part of the movie seems to extend from this idea, where a controlled but antic energy ebbs and flows but never stops and the characters move through constant and meaningful patterns of action and interaction. Music plays a crucial role—Stevie Wonder’s 'Ma Cherie Amour' is Pat’s kryptonite; Led Zeppelin accompanies one dazzling sequence, somehow playing over rather than under it—as do long, talky scenes, confrontations about nothing that have a tendency to bring everything out.
Fully under its spell while watching it, as Silver Lining’s credits rolled I wondered how difficult it would be to talk about what makes this movie work so well without sputtering into defensive cliché. It’s rich with character! It’s got layers! Robert DeNiro redux! The paradox of David O. Russell’s master class in execution is that its lessons are so fully and completely embedded and intermixed in the thing he has made that they’re impossible to extract and examine. Do I sound pleased? I’m perfectly cool with that, and I dare you to disagree.