I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast, love the director
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
So I didn’t honestly think that Silver Linings Playbook would be one of those Hollywood flicks in which mental illness is adorable and kooky and nonconformist and fun. Because David O. Russell doesn’t make that kind of movie. But Hollywood does that to a movie lover, makes her reflexively shy away, just in case. Still, Playbook goes further in the other direction, toward the itchy and disquieting and questioning, than I was expecting. That’s half thrilling, as it always is when a movie does well something The Movies don’t typically try to do at all, and half uncomfortable, because it’s not always easy to watch.
Here’s Pat, you see, and he’s played by Bradley Cooper, who is supernaturally gorgeous usually, and here he’s… not. Not that Russell — writing and directing from the novel by Matthew Quick [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — deliberately uglies Cooper up, like some Hollywood movies do when they want us to accept astonishingly beautiful people as “normal” or even “damaged.” Cooper (The Hangover Part II, Limitless) is just roughened up around the edges in a way that refuses to make it totally pleasant for us to watch him, just watch him, as a separate thing from an appreciation for his exhaustingly rewarding performance. His Pat is dangerously unpredictable, twitchy inside and out, like he might explode at any minute — there’s something alarmingly manic behind that icy-blue gaze of his that, in other films, is the kind of thing you’d willingly drown in. You might go out of your way to avoid Pat and whatever is behind his gaze.
Not that I mean to imply that people who mentally ill are automatically dangerous, of course, just that the Russell (Three Kings) and Cooper have clearly made a point of not allowing Pat to become what mentally ill characters often become in Hollywood movies: someone magnetic and full of wise secrets that we “normals” would benefit from if only we could open our tiny minds and see past all the “rules” we foolishly allow ourselves to be corralled by. Pat has, though, just come out of an eight-month stint in a psychiatric hospital, court-ordered, after he beat up a man who set off a rage that Pat had obviously been living with since forever. Turns out Pat is bipolar, and had not previously been diagnosed, and though both “the court” and “the doctor” said he was good to go, it could be that he wasn’t. He’s home living with Mom (Jacki Weaver: The Five-Year Engagement, Animal Kingdom) and Dad (Robert DeNiro: Red Lights, New Year’s Eve) now, because his marriage has fallen apart and he’s not really capable of living on his own. And the lack of brakes on his mouth — “I don’t have a filter when I talk,” he explains — and on his behavior — he flies off the handle, in the middle of the night, over the ending of a novel that he doesn’t like — is making life difficult for them all.
The really perturbing stuff bubbles up almost unasked for. We get hints that Pat’s father, Pat Sr., has been suffering from OCD for many years: he’s driven almost entirely by a series of quirks and superstitions, many of which revolve around his preoccupation with football and, specifically, the Philadelphia Eagles. Pat Sr. has some issues with violence, too, and the fact that DeNiro is playing him — one or two moments echo some of the actor’s other more traditionally savage characters, such as the mobster he played in GoodFellas — fuels some intriguing philosophical undercurrents: Why is this violent guy considered mentally ill but that one isn’t? The question is underlined more forcefully in another scene, in which a brawl at an Eagles games starts when a couple of random idiots insult Pat’s doctor (Anupam Kher: Midnight’s Children, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), whom Pat has accidentally run into, and the doctor’s crew of Indian Eagles fans: that scene manages to imply that if an inability to prevent oneself from throwing punches is a sign of mental illness, then perhaps unrestrained bigotry is, too.
I’m making Playbook sound more solemn than it is! There’s a lot of humor here, much of it powered by a recognition of and frustration with the oddities and idiosyncrasies that grip all of us, even if we’re 100 percent mentally tiptop. (Though there is the suggestion, too, that perhaps none of us are 100 percent, that we’re all being driven crazy by life’s pressures, that we’re all just barely holding our shit together, if we are.) Pat is absolutely certain that he will be getting back together with his wife, all evidence, like a restraining order, to the contrary, and his relentless, almost frenzied positivity — he sees “silver linings” everywhere — plays a little bit like a sendup of self-help claptrap. The bulk of the actual plot, which revolves around Pat getting maneuvered into partnering with a neighbor, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence [House at the End of the Street, The Hunger Games], extraordinary in her first adult role), in a dance competition, plays like a gentle sendup of romantic comedies. Because Tiffany has had her own run-ins with the mental-health system, and she doesn’t have a filter when she talks either, and all of their encounters spark with irascible honesty about wants and needs, never about romance — because Pat is totally getting back together with his wife — but about everything: life, hope, lies, truth, discipline, football, statistics, lucky charms, and Raisin Bran.
The restless, blunt anticharm of Playbook turns out, then, to be its own silver lining, a sneaky way of being charming in spite of its own hotheaded self. Gotta love that.