Director David O. Russell began his career picking apart genre clichés. His second film, Flirting With Disaster, injected gay characters into a scenario that could have come from a '30s screwball comedy. Made at the heart of the studio system, Three Kings was a war film that allowed an Iraqi torturer to make cogent points about American racism and offered a general critique of George H.W. Bush's Iraq War.
But after I Heart Huckabees and a still-unfinished film, Russell seemed lost. His comeback, The Fighter, reinforced received wisdom about athletics and addiction instead of subverting it. The Oscars loved it, but I did not. His follow-up, Silver Linings Playbook, improves on it, but feels similarly phony, offering a view of mental illness that papers over its more dangerous aspects.
At the beginning of Silver Linings Playbook, Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from an eight-month stay in a Baltimore mental hospital. He was involuntarily committed for assaulting a man whom he caught having sex with his wife, Nikki, but his mental problems had begun long before that incident. Returning to his parents' house in Philadelphia, he embarks on a self-improvement program of reading and jogging. His parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) are skeptical. They insist that he take his meds and see a therapist regularly. They also worry he'll violate a restraining order by visiting Nikki or going back to the school where he used to work.
Things brighten when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman with a host of mental problems of her own, and one of the few neighbors who seems capable of respecting him. Any savvy viewer can see a relationship between Pat and Tiffany as inevitable, but Pat remains obsessed with winning back Nikki.
Pat is diagnosed as bipolar, but the film never shows any dark, depressive episodes, just more dramatic fits of mania. After reading a Hemingway novel and getting pissed off at the unhappy ending, he throws it out the window and wakes up his parents at 4 a.m. to complain about Hemingway's nihilism. To its credit, the film does show Pat in a few genuinely frightening moments, as when he hits his mother. But apart from this, his violent streak is directed at objects or people who deserve it, like a group of racists who attack Indian-Americans outside a football game. Adam Sandler's character in Punch-Drunk Love was scarier.
Silver Linings Playbook would play very differently if Paul Giamatti were cast in the lead. Cooper remains a pretty boy well into his 30s, and Pat emerges from the mental hospital with a flattering haircut, a few days' worth of designer stubble and no weight gain. (In fact, characters constantly tell him how much weight he's lost.) Jennifer Lawrence is similarly glamorous. Tiffany details a past full of dysfunctional, compulsive sexuality, calling herself a "slut," but seems able to cast it aside easily when Pat's in the picture. If these characters weighed 200 pounds, the film would be more realistic, but the Weinstein Company would probably never have made it.
Despite the film's flaws, Russell excels at creating a community of misfits around Pat and Tiffany. Pat's optimism proves right in the end, especially when the film takes an extended detour through the world of competitive dancing. And while Russell doesn't avoid rom-com clichés — one can tell that Pat will eventually stop pining for his ex-wife — he embraces them with a sincerity that momentarily disarms any objections. If there's something seriously objectionable about showing the cute side of mental illness, there's also something thrilling about the ending Russell engineers for his characters. Sometimes formulas really do work.