Director David O. Russell’s film career began with edgy indie drama Spanking the Monkey (1994) which won the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival. Russell looked set to follow a similar cult filmmaking path to his indie counterparts Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson with his innovative, challenging and eccentric films. However, since his debut, his career has been one of constant fluctuation as he shifted between conformist Hollywood blockbusters (Three Kings) to more quirky, indie comedies (I Heart Huckabees). When he received an Oscar for 2010’s The Fighter many critics agreed that Russell was finding his (mainstream) feet. With Silver Linings Playbook, Russell juxtaposes his early penchant for idiosyncrasy with the rom-com genre. What you get is a surprisingly enjoyable film despite its conventional nature.
Former teacher, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has recently been released from a mental institution. He moves back home with his parents and desperately tries to resolve his relationship with his wife by reading all the books on her English Literature course. However, a restraining and the peculiarly similar Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) present many challenges for Pat. Tiffany has problems of her own: her husband recently died and she lost her job after sleeping with every employee in the office. She offers to help Pat reconnect with his wife but only if he agrees to compete in a local dance competition.
Silver Linings Playbook is definitely not original; you only need to look at films like As Good As It Gets to find similarities. However, what is interesting about SLP is the way it explores the relationship between two people who both experience psychological problems. Pat’s bipolar disorder is brought on through seeing his wife with another man but it’s hard not to think his partial mental weaknesses derive from his father’s own OCD – his father, Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro) is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles football team and is running an illegal bookie project on the side. Pat’s father wants nothing more than for him to be like him, follow family traditions and become more ‘normal’. Normalcy for Pat is returning to the past life he had with his wife rather than embracing who he has become. Tiffany embraces who she is. She’s sassy, smart and challenging.
I had reservations about the casting of Bradley Cooper because he’s not an actor that I would described as nuanced and his range as an actor is more focused to escapist blockbusters. His character is less damaged than Lawrence’s. He has a great scene where he burst into his parent’s room angered by Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Jennifer Lawrence was an absolute pleasure to watch. She is delightfully eccentric and funny, and Lawrence breathes life into a character that is quite convoluted. The range of complexity in these two characters is rather light and fluffy – so perfectly suitable for a romantic comedy. It’s as if Russell wanted to tame emotional engagement with these characters for fear of depressing his audience.
Beside Lawrence and Cooper is a multitude of farcical characters. Chris Tucker plays Pat’s friend, Danny, from the institution. He is always duping people into thinking he has been released for good behaviour. Then there is Pat’s Indian psychiatrist, Dr. Cliff Patel. Danny and Cliff are stereotypical roles for ethnic actors. They are there to create comedy and nothing more. Alongside this, I felt that Robert de Niro’s performance was overrated and literally parodies his early roles in the Meet the Parent franchise.
The dance competition held similar expectations for me as those seen in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine and it was possibly one of the film’s most enjoyable scenes. We expect their performance to be less traditional and professional, and more Britain’s Got Talent audition. It’s also the chance for Pat to really show his wife that he is better but, honestly, I didn’t really care if he reconciled with his wife or not. I just wanted to see the dance.
Russell’s film has fallen prey to conventional rom-com doom but it is kept afloat by Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance really breathes life into the film and compels you to watch. If only characterisation could have been fleshed out more and presented a more intelligent view of people dealing with their psychological disorders. Then, and only then, could this film have truly achieved what it set out to do. It’s not As Good As It Gets but SLP tried to do something new at a time when Hollywood truly is obsessed with mental disorders – think about the success of Homeland. However, despite my reservations about characterisation this film is quite enjoyable.
The Fighter is Russell’s best film, in my opinion, and one in which he found a visual style that matched his vision. His indie colleagues Soderbergh and Anderson have managed to achieve a consistent and distinctive visual style whilst remaining true to their independent roots. I only hope that Russell can do the same in time.
image source: www.theatlantic.com