It is hard to find anything negative to say about director David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, a film, based on its title, whose protagonist prides himself on positivity. That main character is Pat Solitano (played by Philadelphia native Bradley Cooper), who repeats to himself and to others that if you stay positive, you can find a silver lining in life. He struggles with his own counsel as he moves back into his parent’s home, eight months after serving in a Baltimore mental institution for a “blow up” he had involving his wife’s infidelity. But he, quick and verbose, funny and sharp, haunted and maniacal, assures that he is ready to reacclimatize into his Philadelphia neighborhood. Stick to the playbook and everything will go fine.
What’s waiting for him at home however- his high school picture taken from the wall for starters- causes a few audibles, and those finely orchestrated routes of aggression and tension get chipped at the line of scrimmage, veering off course to allow for the members that enter Pat’s life, old and new. The football rhetoric emanates from his father Pat Sr.(a strongly caring Robert DeNiro), whose passion for the Eagles takes controlling form in his OCD on game days and superstitious quirks, mostly involving the presence of Pat sitting next to him. Every game his mother (Jacki Weaver) makes the signature lunch and their old Cowboy fan friend (Paul Herman) drops by. This, in many ways, is a sports film, one that displays its ancestral filial bonding, weaving impassioned souls into the living room arena, blurring superfan lines of Sunday tradition with weekly cursing and yelling.
Some of that is reciprocated in the early morning hours by Pat, who reads voraciously through Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” only to be disappointed in its unpromising ending. He wakes his parents to list his complaints, a partly humorous and manic scene that explains the extremes of his undiagnosed bipolarity. A former schoolteacher, he reads the novels from his ex-wife’s syllabus to catch up on the material he missed, to prove his worth to the woman he loved. He is a man still off the edge, but seems so able to pull himself back.
Nikki is his driving force to demonstrate he has improved mentally and physically. He jogs over the neighborhood in sweats and a trash bag, losing sweat and notably weight, of which everyone seems to comment. One night he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the mentally unstable younger sister of his friend’s wife (Julia Stiles). They bond over sharing past medical information and gawk at each other’s inappropriateness over the dinner table, both aiming for the higher socially accepted ground. After their initial run-in and sharing of their past, they continue their correspondence simultaneously jogging and bickering with each other. This is a painful comedy watching them together- unfiltered and candid, exposing darkness and offering light- but it is a joy to see where they go.
At the advice of his therapist, Pat becomes closer to Tiffany whose husband was killed in an accident. She strikes a deal with him to slip a letter to Nikki, sideswiping the restraining order, if he will become her dance partner for a ballroom competition. The trade-off is unusual but becomes an enriching experience for Pat, channeling his qualms with a dedicated schedule and sense of accountability. Pat’s friend (Chris Tucker), in and out of the institution, offers advice for their dance, a fusion of ballroom, rock, and swing. Tiffany’s garage apartment offers them the dance floor and place of recluse, an enclosed room with a wall of mirrors. How they see themselves and how we see them soon begin to merge.
For its more self-identifying themes, Silver Linings Playbook rarely relies on just one person to carry a scene. Russell’s camera almost always captures multiple forces at play, interested in the family dynamic between father, son, mother, wife, friend, and lover. In his last work The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg’s character had to manage multiple relationships, balancing parental desires, his brother’s pleas, his girlfriend’s needs; all confluent in his Massachusetts town. Here, Cooper does the same, deftly sharing scenes with Lawrence that demonstrate both of their internal progress and the demons that still linger.
It is the omniscient perspective that provides this kind of familial lens. We feel for the father who shares remorse and arresting fandom, for Tiffany, slowly mending her life back, for the mother, exhaustingly mediating gridiron bragging rights and her son’s search for his life again. It is filmed with such intimacy that levels you out on a string of jokes and then levels you to the floor with fitfully painful lows. But we naturally adopt Pat’s positivity, so convincing, but at times so fleeting. Pat Sr. recalls Eagles’ Wide receiver DeSean Jackson spiking the ball down in celebration of a touchdown he didn’t score, mistakenly releasing the pigskin on the 1-yardline. Appropriately, Pat wears a Jackson jersey in many scenes, metaphorically trying to hold onto a football of people tearing at him, challenging him to let go before his own goal line.
He rejects Hemingway’s finale, and embraces the clip of Singin’ in the Rain Tiffany shows him for their dance. That film contained a happy ending, but more importantly satisfied a feeling eminent throughout. It is a joy to watch Pat grow individually and socially, develop ways of acknowledging himself in the very moment and twice-important future. It’s a messy, Kelly green family, but so is life, which is a more than satisfactory feeling.