David O. Russell has built his career on quirky characters. Even as early as his first feature Spanking the Monkey, it has been clear that much of the charm of his films has not necessarily come from plot, but more from seeing what the characters will do next within the structure of the plot. This is not to say that Russell’s plots have been a weak point in his career, but they have not been the draw. Obviously, when everything works, such as with Flirting With Disaster (possibly one of the best comedies of the 90’s) or Three Kings, the result is incredibly strong. His love for characters becomes a clear strength when the plot does fail him, such as with 2010’s by-the-numbers sports biopic The Fighter, where the standard sports movie clichés were overcome by the magnetism of the cast.
With Silver Linings Playbook, the quirky characters are chiefly provided by Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver. The concept is simple enough; Pat (Cooper) is a man struggling with mental illness (in this case, bipolar disorder) sprung from a mental institution possibly a bit too early by his mother and hoping to use a new found stability to win back the love and trust of his wife. Weaver and DeNiro are his parents, die hard Philadelphia sports fans who want to see the Eagles win just as much as they want to see their son be a functional member of society. Jennifer Lawrence enters the fray as Tiffany, an acquaintance of Pat’s estranged wife and suffering from her own problems stemming from the death of her husband. The proceedings play out like a pretty typical romantic comedy. Pat and Tiffany are thrust together by happenstance, but the relationship starts out rocky has Pat wants to use Tiffany as a connection to get closer to his wife without violating her restraining order. They get close, are pulled apart in Act Two, and eventually reconcile through a dance competition. Subplots come and go, and the conflicts within the film are pretty easily predictable. It’s not as bad as The Fighter in that respect, but Russell isn’t breaking any ground with this one from a plot perspective.
Given all that, the portrayals of the characters become the fulcrum necessary to bring the film out from under the weight of its conventions. In part due to his illness, as well as his stay in the hospital and his therapy sessions throughout the story, Pat’s one main trait in an active refusal to hold his tongue for the sake of social propriety. He has a way of always speaking what he believes to be the truth that is both refreshing and confrontational. Tiffany is similar; though a little less open than Pat, she is also partial to speaking her mind regardless of expectation, as well as popping out of nowhere to ambush Pat while he’s jogging. The key here is that they make the budding romance seem natural and decently plausible, which is central for the film to work on any level.
De Niro as Pat Senior represents the spirit of Philadelphia. The setting of Phlly is pretty heavily fleshed out, which gives some nice credibility to the side plot involving DeNiro betting the money he was going to use to open a cheese steak joint (Philly!) on a bet involving an Eagles Cowboys football game (PHILLY!). From discussions about Andy Reid’s knack for wasting time outs and bad challenges to Kevin Kolb jerseys and DeSean Jackson spiking the ball at the one yard line, it is clear that David O. Russell did his homework. I was impressed that I could only notice one anachronism regarding the Eagles fandom; there is a scene that takes place in the parking lot of Lincoln Financial Field before a game where an extra in the background is wearing a Nnamdi Asomugha jersey, who would not have been with the team yet, as they establish during the film that this takes place near the end of the McNabb era (the 2008 season, presumably. Yes, I am both a nerd and an Eagles fan). This work manages to make the film feel like it takes place in the real world, which is a boon for the sort of naturalistic storytelling Russell is aiming for (there’s also something awesome about how the mental institution is simply referred to as “Baltimore” and the concept of a Philly kid being sent to Baltimore is a fate worse than death). There are times when it seems heavy handed (a Kevin Kolb jersey? People who aren’t his family bought those?), and years from now, it’ll all seem dated as hell, but it’s certainly an overall positive for the strength of the film.
Chris Tucker rounds out the major cast as a fellow patient of Pat’s, and everyone does their job well. Overall, Silver Linings Playbook finds itself somewhere in the middle of David O. Russell’s oeuvre, not quite reaching the undeniably heavenly mix of plot and characters as I Heart Huckabees and Flirting With Disaster, but is also certainly stronger than The Fighter. It is a worthy addition to Russell’s catalog, and for a director with his talent, that is certainly a good thing.