Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 122 minutes
Dissect the whole of David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, and you'll find a bunch of individual pieces that belong in either an unbearably cheesy romantic comedy or a shoddy Lifetime movie. Put all of these pieces into O. Russell's hands as both writer and director, and thrown in an outstanding cast, and you have one of the year's best surprises. Though Playbook does at times let its rom-com cliches get the better of it, the film maintains a steady course that mixes indie sensibilities with broad emotional appeal. Following 2010's The Fighter, this is yet another more accessible film from the brash writer/director. And, thankfully, O. Russell has hit the sweet spot, even as he veers closer to lightweight territory.
Based on Matthew Quick's novel of the same name, Playbook is the sort of comedy/drama hybrid that knows how to deftly mix the light and the heavy emotional components with ease. Pat (Bradley Cooper), recently on leave from a mental institution after a violent breakdown, is struggling to readjust to life with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver). Pat is convinced that, assuming he can find a way to prove that he has changed, he can win back his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). Along the way, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the sister-in-law of a close friend, who has had similar issues with mental health. Several awkward encounters later, Tiffany and Pat are working together to enter a couples' dance competition, which Pat hopes will prove his supposed newfound sense of discipline and emotional control.
The buildup to the dance subplot, however, is where O. Russell and his actors succeed most. As in The Fighter, the family and friends that populate this film love each other, but also have their fair share of battle scars and hot tempers. Instead of mundane soap opera hysterics, however, we get scenes that, through turns funny and dramatic, keep the characters on an emotional high wire. So even though the comedy isn't likely to make you double over in hysteria, it comes from such a situational, organic place that the film never feels like it's straining for comedy to break up the drama. And, as loud as the characters can become, with anywhere from four to eight voices shouting over each other, the emotional fireworks have genuine heat to them. Whether Pat is ranting about his disdain for Ernest Hemingway, or awkwardly attempting to converse with Tiffany, O. Russell's sharp eye finds the truth in the characters, never letting them descend into caricatures (even Chris Tucker, which is saying something).
Much of this also comes down to the stellar work from the cast. Mr. Cooper, best known for the two Hangover films as well as Limitless, sheds his typical smug swagger and digs deep into Pat. It's both a leading man turn and a work of striking character detailing that should, hopefully allow Cooper to start unlocking his potential as a performer. Whether he's manic, angry, or blatantly disregarding normal social skills, Pat comes through so clearly as a character that his sharp shifts in mood never feel strained or contrived. The same can be said for Lawrence, who, whether by herself or interacting with Pat, feels so much like a fully-drawn person that she avoids becoming a gritty version of a manic pixie dream girl. Watching the two interact together, both troubled, both overcoming different losses, is the film's highlight. Some developments in the plot may feel a little rushed (the dance training basically consists of one montage), but the two central performances keep everything so wonderfully grounded that it only becomes apparent once the lights go up and the credits roll.
With so much excellent ground work in regards to the characters, the film carries a tremendous energy through, never flagging even as it hits a handful of predictable notes in the final act. So much of Pat and Tiffany's relationship has such an in-the-moment back and forth that the last minute moments of "will they or won't they" tension can't help but feel like a desperate appeal for broad appeal. No such appeal is necessary, as the characters, warts and all, prove so lively and engaging on multiple levels. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the more banal rom-com pieces of the puzzle eventually rear their bland heads. As such, the film ends too neatly. Like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook moves along with excellent emotional edginess its entire way through, only to conclude on an unitive ending that matches the story in tone, yet still feels out of place. It's as if, in the final minutes, O. Russell forgot to suppress the aspects of the film that rob it of its otherwise distinct status among romantic comedies.