David O. Russell is making a name for himself by taking terribly conventional scripts/plots and turning out remarkably original movies full of life and energy. He did it first with “Three Kings,” but then again, and with more accolades with “The Fighter,” which on paper was just another movie about an underdog boxer, but on screen was fascinating, funny, and one of the best sports films to come along in years. And now he’s back with “Silver Linings Playbook,” and he’s doing the same thing for the romantic-comedy-amongst-kooks genre.
Bradley Cooper plays a guy fresh out of a mental hospital after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death. He’s trying hard to be better, and even harder to convince everyone else that he’s better. His friends hook him up with Jennifer Lawrence, who, since her cop husband died in a freak accident, has slept with nearly everyone in town. The motives of his friends are questionable. Are they trying to get him laid so that he’ll forget about his ex-wife? That’s super sketchy, since Lawrence is clearly dealing with her own craziness and needs people around her who will protect her, not enable her.
But then it becomes clear that just about everyone in “Silver Linings Playbook” is some kind of crazy. It’s sort of the mirror image of “Arrested Development.” In that show, Jason Bateman thinks he’s the only sane one surrounded by a bunch of lunatics, but really, he’s just as nuts as everyone else. Here, Bradley Cooper thinks he’s the one with mental issues surrounded by normal people, but everyone else is just as insane as he is.
Take, for instance, his father, played by Robert De Niro. He’s a bookie and a passionate, superstitious Eagles fan. He honestly seems to think that the way he holds a certain handkerchief has an effect on the outcome of the game. De Niro believes that Cooper watching the game with him makes a difference. That’s insane. Betting on it is even more insane. That’s a weird pressure to put on somebody – I’m betting heavy because I believe you’re good luck and the Eagles are going to win because you’re at the game. Not playing IN the game, AT the game. You can’t do anything REAL to help the team win the game, you can’t take the field and catch a touchdown pass, so if they lose and you were there being good luck, what then? You didn’t do enough? Didn’t do what enough? If my dad bet all he had on a football game because he believed that my good luck presence was going to determine the game – me one out of 50,000 fans attending, 150,000 watching — I would have a nervous breakdown right then and there.
Lawrence is the hero of the film because instead of resisting everyone’s craziness, she just meets them in it. In the best sequence of the movies (and one of the best sequences in movies, period,) instead of telling De Niro that he’s insane to think that his son’s relationship with her is detrimental to the Eagles, she just goes with it. And she’s done her research. I love the way this whole sequence is filmed, directed and acted. There are so many characters involved, really involved in this scene; there’s so much energy to it. The plot mechanics are pretty straight forward; you need to film a confrontation scene that ends with this crazy bet upon which the rest of the film will be predicated. But the way it’s handled is so loose — and frenetic — that it really feels like a situation that just evolves into what it becomes. Nothing feels forced. And so a really implausible plot point — the calling card of nearly all romantic comedies — feels honestly believable.
All of “Silver Linings Playbo0k” feels messy, loose and thrown together. At first glance, you’d think the director is hardly in control of what’s going on here. But on closer look, it becomes clear that this madness is by design. For instance. Russell uses the editing, and the score, to create a sense of things happening too fast, which I think is supposed to be how Cooper feels about the world – there are just too many things happening, too fast, both inside and outside of his head, for him to deal with them all. If everything would just slow down a little, he might be all right. But everything escalates. On top of that, Russell gets great, fully invested performances from everyone involved. That’s no easy task, and I wonder what his secret is. Some of these actors, I’ve never seen them working this hard. Others, De Niro in particular, look like he just woke up from a long nap of acting in silly and stupid movies. I’ve stopped watching movies just because Robert De Niro is in them, but I’ll hazard a guess – he hasn’t been this invested since he directed himself in “The Good Shepherd.”
This is a heck of a movie, and David O. Russell is a heck of a director, someone I’ll definitely be watching in years to come. His movies are alive in a way a lot of movies aren’t, and they’re really fun and intriguing to watch.
–I don’t know much about mental illness. I have very little personal experience with it, so I can’t say if this is an accurate depiction of a certain kind of crazy. I can only say things like this: deciding to read his English teacher ex-wife’s entire class syllabus seems real, while waking up his parents in the middle of the night to complain about the ending of “A Farewell to Arms” seems like the kind of thing that only happens in movies.
–This I do know: There’s no way a real psychiatrist would surreptitiously display a patient’s trigger just to see if it’s still triggers them. You know the only doctor who would do that? Dr. Spaceman from “30 Rock.” No one else. (But hey, everyone’s crazy in this film. Including the shrink.)
–Apparently there is only one cop in all of Philadelphia. He even shows up (in a tux) in the dance scene.
–The dance scene is reminiscent of the one in “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s hilariously bad and absolutely perfect.