Every single one of us is at least a little fucked up mentally. Obviously some people have worse conditions than others, but deep down there’s something tweaked within all of us – it’s part of the human experience. And that’s what makes Silver Linings Playbook, the new movie from writer-director David O. Russell based on the novel by Matthew Quick, such an impressive piece of filmmaking: the lead character is described is an undiagnosed bipolar locked up after a violent attack, but his recovery and the sometimes cockeyed support he gets from his loved ones only exposes the fact that none of us are anything close to what could be described as “normal.”
The film has a main story – a former teacher named Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is released from a mental hospital after an eight month stay and tries to win back the affection of his cheating ex-wife (Brea Bee) – but that simple-though-entertaining plot almost fades away in your mind as you watch the fascinating characters who come in and out of Pat's life. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who meets our hero after he moves back home, is a recently widowed young woman who coped with her distress by having sex with every person in her office. Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), Pat’s father, is not just an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan, but also a compulsive gambler with OCD tendencies in his extreme superstitiousness. Ronnie (John Ortiz) is Pat’s best friend who is stuck in a marriage with a woman (Julia Stiles) who bosses him around and has completely shredded his confidence. And not only are these characters beautifully illustrated and crafted with depth and personality, Russell utilizes them to their greatest extent, not only fitting them into the larger story seamlessly, but also providing each of them with a full arc to play with.
The entire movie is impeccably cast. While Cooper is the film’s greatest surprise – evincing his character’s manic episodes with just the proper amount of panic, fear and stress without ever overplaying his hand – and De Niro is fantastic, it’s Lawrence’s turn that you’ll be talking about as you exit the theater. Tiffany is almost as screwed up as Pat, and the young actress plays her with an engaging aggressiveness that lets her dominate every scene she’s in, whether she’s wildly charging out of the side of the screen while Pat is on a run or shutting down Pat Sr. when he suggests that she is “bad juju” for the Eagles. She’s the fourth grade bully who punches you in the arm and tells you to stop being such a wimp, and though you may bruise and have your feelings hurt you still can’t help the overwhelming crush you have on her.
Russell does it with more than his pen, as his direction perfectly reflects the film’s themes and tones. Throughout the film he makes a point of having the camera come rushing up to actors until its right in their faces. It’s sometimes disorienting, but it creates an atmosphere for the movie and makes you feel as though you’re watching the story through the eyes of the characters. As he has in previous films like The Fighter and Three Kings he mixes tones brilliantly, able to orchestrate emotions with soft and jagged camera movement – and without ever alienating the audience.
There’s a thin line to walk in crafting a comedy about mental illness. Going about it in the wrong way could not only result in something insensitive, but also foolish and overdone, with characters waving their arms in the air and running down the street with their pants around their ankles. But Russell is simply too good a filmmaker to let that happen. Thanks to his work Silver Linings Playbook isn’t just a great piece of entertainment filled with appealing, fun characters, but also a film that gets how fucked up we all really are.