For whatever reason, this is a banner year for movies about mental illness set in Pennsylvania. We still have the excellent Pittsburgh teen flick The Perks of Being a Wallflower playing, and now from the other end of the state comes the Philadelphia-set Silver Linings Playbook, which is possibly even better. This volatile and terribly funny comedy lit up the Lone Star International Film Festival two weeks ago, and now it reaches a multiplex near you as one of the year’s best movies.
Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, the film begins with former history teacher Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) being released from a mental institution, eight months after being diagnosed as bipolar and slightly more than eight months after he beat the living crap out of the fellow teacher whom he found having sex with his wife. Now Pat has moved back in with his parents, determined to lose weight and repair his marriage. He needs heroic resolve to keep a positive attitude, since he lives and dies by the fortunes of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, like the rest of his family. His continued fidelity to his wife is sorely tested by Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Pat’s best friend’s sister-in-law, who has been through some mental troubles of her own and does everything she can to throw herself into his path.
Writer-director David O. Russell burst onto the indie film scene in the 1990s and then proceeded to ruin his reputation in the ’00s with his erratic on-set behavior. Two years ago, he came back with The Fighter, a fine boxing drama and a statement to the film world that said, “Look, everyone! I’m on my medication! I’m OK now!” That success seemingly emboldens him to cut loose in this movie, as he employs whirling handheld camera movements to film ordinary domestic scenes at the Solatano house. The visuals accompany Russell’s sharp-edged, freewheeling dialogue, as in a dinner party scene when Pat and Tiffany make everybody else uncomfortable by loudly comparing notes on antidepressants. (“How about Trazodone? It flattens you out. I mean, you are done. It takes the light right out of your eyes.”) The chaos is Russell’s way of capturing the undercurrents of rage and instability that roil all these characters, especially Pat, Tiffany, and Pat’s brawling dad (Robert De Niro). Family dysfunction is Russell’s pet subject, and here it’s a palpable thing that singes the air, sets off the hilarity, and gives the whole movie a dangerous, veering-out-of-control vibe.
Taking their cue from this, all of the cast members play as if they’ve just chugged a case of Red Bull. The skilled and funny Cooper has had trouble being taken seriously, partly because he made his name in comedy, mostly because he always seems aware of how terribly good-looking he is regardless of the role he’s playing. You won’t be surprised to see him deftly handling the scenes in which Pat’s condition is played for laughs, but you will be surprised at the out-of-control verbal torrents that pour out of him in his manic state and the untrammeled anguish he brings when Pat’s illness overpowers him, like a violent outburst over a wedding video that leaves Pat and both his parents covered in bruises, and Pat sobbing on his bed. If you think Cooper is a pretty boy who can’t act, this performance will make you reconsider.
The other actors are similarly excellent, particularly John Ortiz as Pat’s floundering best friend or Anupam Kher as Pat’s jovial psychotherapist. De Niro brings more energy here than to any movie of his in the last 20 years, and only the stoniest heart will be unaffected by a quiet scene when the flinty, combative old man sits on Pat’s bed and reveals how much it means to him to watch Eagles games with his son. Even he, though, has to take a back seat to Lawrence, who throws large amounts of attitude in all directions and deploys her trademark fierceness for comic effect. We’ve never really seen her do this, and she gives her funniest performance to date. One late scene stands out, when the football-hating Tiffany reels off a list of football stats to show Pat’s family why he should spend more time with her. It’s a bravura scene that would have died hideously (along with the rest of the movie, perhaps) in a lesser actress’ hands, and Lawrence carries it off magnificently.
Believe it or not, Silver Linings Playbook climaxes at a dance contest where Pat partners Tiffany in exchange for her help reconciling with his wife, and where the outcome is the subject of a huge wager between Pat’s dad and a trash-talking Dallas Cowboys fan (Paul Herman). This oddly appropriate set piece caps the warmest and most likable of Russell’s films, a tribute to the unconditional love that makes you stick by your screwed-up family and your screwed-up football team. And it comes to us for Thanksgiving. What a perfect time to see this.
Silver Linings Playbook
Starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Written and directed by David O. Russell, based on Matthew Quick’s novel. Rated R.