“I believe in the Eagles, and I believe in my son,” proclaims Robert De Niro’s character, patriarch of the football-obsessed Solitano family. This working-class Philadelphia family may have a benevolent portrait of Jesus on the wall, but their religion is football and their god is their team. Yet for all the green jerseys, ritual game-day snacks and touchdown superstitions, “Silver Linings Playbook” is ultimately about sports in the way that “Titanic” was about a shipwreck. Football, running, and dancing are all vehicles to expose the discontent broiling behind endless rows of cookie-cutter houses. In David O. Russel’s “Playbook,” a blend of uniquely personal filmmaking and emotionally astute acting effectively lays bare all the hidden pains of an unassuming suburban landscape.
“Playbook” is a movie about people struggling to connect across vast divides. “I’m remaking myself,” the disheveled and frenzied Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) announces, his eyes gleaming with determined fervor. Pat is going to be the kind of man any woman would cherish: sensitive, athletic, intellectual, and ambitious. Granted, his wife cheated on him, he just got released from eight months in a psych lock-up, and he is moving back in with his parents. Yet Pat plows on resolutely.
While Pat may be the most obviously disturbed character, Russell spares no one from an inevitable struggle against his or her past or present life. There are Pat’s parents (De Niro and Jacki Weaver), equally bewildered by their son’s mental illness and walking on tenterhooks around their own financial woes; Pat’s successful best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz), submissive partner seething with resentment; and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a magnetic young widow and recovering sex addict, who under Lawrence’s unwavering intensity becomes the one person who can get Pat back on track.
Little unfolds as neatly as it might in a fluffy romantic comedy. Russell has shown in gritty triumphs like his 2010 “The Fighter” that no path to redemption is a straight one. As much as Pat wants to take control of his emotions, his bipolar disorder forces him to contend with everyday demons as well as those hidden deeper in his consciousness. He flips out at the pessimism in his wife’s high school English syllabus: “Can’t somebody say, ‘Let’s be positive, let’s have a good ending to the story?’” he implores maniacally, stalking around their house in the middle of the night after finishing “A Farewell to Arms.” In instances like these, his fresh-faced optimism and inevitable disappointment are played, appropriately, for laughs, yet his violent tantrum upon discovering his parents have hidden his wedding video is more frightening than humorous. Cooper shifts surprisingly well between these intense highs and quieter, repentant moments. As an actor best known for less cerebral action-comedy roles, Cooper shows an emotional breakthrough and can be seen as a different kind of rising star.
Luckily, Lawrence matches this intensity as few other actresses could. Tiffany becomes Pat’s rock, a sounding board for his inexplicable rages and blinding resentment. Yet she is a rock in the midst of an avalanche, and Lawrence perfectly conveys Tiffany’s emotional state of disdain, volatility, and self-awareness with winsome eye rolls and straight-shouldered stoicism. “I’m just the crazy slut with the dead husband,” she repeats in various iterations. “I’m Tommy’s crazy whore widow.” Tiffany is as temperamental as Pat, and it takes an astute director like Russell to emphasize the compatibility of their instability, shown through how they rescue each other from their own mistakes and dramatic public scenes.
In adapting Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, Russell perfectly captures Pat’s agitated narrative and projects it onto his environment. The camera spins and circles around heated conversations as sentences tumble over each other, overlap, and merge. This technique lends an important representative quality; for a movie about characters that struggle to connect with others, the audience can understand them quite well. Russell tightens up and changes several aspects of Quick’s plot, and while these differences may be glaring to the book’s readers, they do not dampen the original spirit of the book.
“You’re afraid of life,” Tiffany angrily accuses Pat at one point. “You’re a hypocrite!” The same cannot be said of Russell or his actors. In this honest and soulful representation of mental illness and love in America, “Silver Linings Playbook” serves as a manual for a different kind of romantic comedy.
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org