Filed under: Critical Perspectives
During the first half of Silver Linings Playbook I squirmed with excitement, elated that I might be watching my favorite film of the year. I was visiting my dad in Texas over Thanksgiving -- the escape from the familial fray to catch a movie was no small feat. After the buzz surrounding David O. Russell's latest at its TIFF debut, I had spent several months awaiting its theatrical release.
While I enjoyed 2010's The Fighter, I looked forward to the director's return to his comedic roots. But when I exited the theater into the strangely intense November sun, the wind-knocked-out-of-me feeling spoke of overwhelming disappointment--it was as though the filmmakers had imposed a cinematic scorched earth policy at the 60th minute: everything built in the first half was destroyed.
The film opens with Pat's (Bradley Cooper) early release from a mental institution. He returns to his hometown of Philly to live with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) until his full recovery is assured. It soon becomes clear that Pat is far from well, evidenced by his continued outrageous exploits. That, coupled with growing tension between him and his father, suggests a return to the asylum may be imminent. So far the film hits all the right notes. Cooper's Pat is charming and cuckoo all at once. There are several brilliant comedic scenes, like when Pat throws Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms out his parent's bedroom window as he rants about the novel . . .all at three in the morning. Underlying the humor, however, is the darkness of Pat's obsession with this estranged wife (who has a restraining order against him) and his father's simmering rage.
Then enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) -- a beautiful young widow who mirrors Pat's lonely post-mental breakdown state. The two share a shaky friendship that eventually culminates in a dance contest and a love story. And here's where the trouble begins for me. First, I found it difficult to believe Lawrence as widow. Thus far I have only seen the twenty-two year old play teenagers. Along with everyone else I find her a promising talent, however, she simple looks too young for the part. Beyond looks, I found her performance hollow. She plays Tiffany with inflated mournfulness--all the motions seem plausible but there is an absence of authentic pain. To a young woman with a life as charmed as Ms. Lawrence's, perhaps there simply is nothing in her own experience to draw upon. However, all this could be overlooked if it weren't for what came next . . .
Gradually the viewer becomes aware that Pat is not the only crazy member of the family. His father, Pat Sr. (De Niro) is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles; he nurses numerous bizarre superstitions regarding the football team that all involve Pat Jr. At first these beliefs seem about as sinister as a rabbit's foot but, after the Eagles lose a game Pat is supposed to attend (but gets into a fight and is kicked out of the stadium instead), his dad excoriates him for the defeat and begins to violently attack him. At this point I began to wonder why no one was calling the guys in white scrubs to escort Pat Sr. to the loony bin. From here the narrative grows increasingly absurd.
Things that make no sense: 1) Pat suddenly begins to hang out with his psychiatrist after they see each other at the Eagle's game 2) Tiffany persuades Pat Sr. that there is a correlation between Pat practicing dance with her and the Eagles winning 3) Pat Sr.'s family watch as he bets his life saving on an Eagle's victory and Pat and Tiffany's success at the dance contest 4) Pat's friend from the mental institution, Danny (Chris Tucker), shows up unexpectedly at the
contest with a beautiful babe on this arm 5) Pat suddenly recovers from his erotomanic delusions concerning his wife and realizes he's in love with Tiffany.
David O. Russell has always incorporated elements of the absurd in his work, sometimes holding together plots by the most tenuous logical threads (think Flirting with Disaster). But, this has always been accompanied by a disdain for the Hollywood formula. The worst thing about Playbook is it undermines the zaniness with the typical sentimental tropes. Despite the fact that Pat Sr.'s delusions damage those around him in serious physical and emotional ways, he never faces any repercussions. In the end, when he wins his bet and Pat is happily in love, all potential sting is sucked out of the material. What could have been an enlightened (and funny) character study of a mentally ill person, full of wry observations of the world of modern psychiatric treatment, turns into another feel-good romantic comedy.
I looked up reviews for the film, certain that I could not be the only one who felt this way. Currently on www.rottentomatoes.com, it boasts a 91% rating! Even the mediocre to negative reviews I found don't seem particularly aggressive. Perhaps I feel so strongly is because, like a spurned lover, my intense love was supplanted with intense disappointment. In the end I'm left to ask: am I the only person on earth who thought Silver Linings Playbook sucked?