“I’m not okay. Don’t tell anyone,” Ronnie (John Ortiz) cathartically blurts out to his bipolar best bud, Pat (Bradley Cooper). Fresh off an eight-month court-ordered stint in a mental institution, Pat is paradoxically better equipped to offer life lessons than his ostensibly well-adjusted and well-off friend. Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel by writer-director David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook unfolds within the same comically cosmic feedback loop as Russell’s I ❤ Huckabees (04), which empirically proved that “everything is the same even if it’s different.” Trading in philosophy for psychiatrists and pharmaceuticals, Silver Linings Playbook similarly espouses the belief that everyone, medicated or not, is just as fucked up as everybody else.
Returning to live with his parents in suburban Philadelphia, Pat is obsessively driven to conquer his illness and re-assemble the fragments of his life as they existed before “the incident”—the one that led to his wife obtaining a restraining order against him. Despite attending therapy, preaching his mantra “Excelsior,” and compulsively jogging, the scruffy-faced juggernaut frequently succumbs to uncontrollable fits of rage. Employing quick, disorienting cuts and exaggerated aural intrusions, these sequences look and sound like Pat’s manic mindscape.
Taking a first step toward social rehabilitation by accepting an invitation to dinner at Ronnie’s house, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow herself in recovery—in her case after a self-destructive nymphomaniacal bender. Unflinchingly parrying his logorrhea, Tiffany provides a feisty yin to complement his pugnacious yang. But Pat is still hung up on his wife to the point of delusion. Although initially showing no interest in this new enigmatic woman in black, he is slowly drawn out— and in—when she solicits his help. It’s not difficult to recognize the rom-com recipe that’s cooking here: the catalyst to the “unlikely” relationship between Pat and Tiffany turns out to be a dance contest. But Silver Linings Playbook never induces a roll of the eyes, even if it never really surprises.
The film moves in every sense of the word, navigating precarious tonal shifts between absurd comedy and visceral violence, while allowing space for moments of true tenderness. The unlikely blend of humor and mental illness comes off in no small part due to the impeccable cast. Cooper can deliver the one-liners and unleash the dramatic fury, too, while the smoky-eyed and husky-voiced Lawrence brings a sultry sensitivity to the screen that demonstrates maturity beyond her young years. Supporting roles played by Ortiz, Julia Stiles, Jacki Weaver, Robert De Niro, and Chris Tucker in his first non–Rush Hour film since 1998, provide a whole host of maladjusted quirks that subject the socially constructed hierarchy of the crazy and the sane to both scrutiny and laughter.
As it turns out, Pat is a chip off the old block. Although openly skeptical about his son’s mental stability, Pat Sr. (De Niro) is an OCD bookie with a touch of raging bull. Banned from the football stadium where his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play for throwing one too many punches, he spends his days performing superstitious rituals while nervously watching the games from the comfort of his living room. Pop’s belief that his son is a good luck charm for the Eagles’ upcoming big game spawns a ludicrous high-stakes parlay that propels the film toward its Dirty Dancing meets Friday Night Lights climax.
The linking of the football game and dance contest outcomes ensures that just about every character is accounted for, screaming, yelling, and eventually cheering in the same room at the end of the film. But it is this appropriate dosage of irrationality that makes the film such an upper. Does it really matter whether it’s merely a placebo effect?