A man tries to reclaim his sanity, while following a pro football team known for driving its fans insane, and he can only do it with the love of a good woman. That’s the premise of David O. Russell’s “The Silver Linings Playbook,” a film which despite some good performances rings totally false in many places. It’s very much unworthy of its status as a major Oscar contender.
The Philadelphia-set ‘Playbook’ belongs to one of my least-favorite sub-genres: It’s a Love Cures Mental Illness movie. Like “As Good As It Gets,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and “Garden State” before it, it oversimplifies complex and serious mental health issues into just one more thing romantic love will ultimately conquer.
While it’s not as irresponsible as “Garden State”- in which Zach Braff stops taking his anti-depressants and everything about his life instantly gets better- “The Silver Linings Playbook” has the same solution for bipolar disorder and depression that unenlightened parents used to have for their gay sons: “You just haven’t met the right girl yet!”
Written and directed by Russell and adapted from a novel by Matthew Quick, the film stars Philadelphia native Bradley Cooper as Pat, a man with bipolar disorder who was recently released from a mental institution, into the custody of his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver.) Obsessed with winning back an estranged wife who wants nothing to do with him, Cooper struggles to get better while coming into the path of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young, attractive neighbor with a troubled past.
About that past… Lawrence is playing a woman who was married for three years, to a husband who appears to have passed away some time ago. So you’d think she’d be in her mid-to-late 20s. Except Lawrence was 21 when the movie was shot and looks like she could be 17, which is how old she was in her most famous role, just a few months ago. Now Lawrence is a fine actress who does a great job in the role- but she should never have been cast in this part. Her youth is never not a distraction, especially opposite the 37-year-old Cooper.
Aside from that, the movie is plagued by a butt-ugly visual style, complete with frequent extreme closeups and handheld shaky-cam. The first shot of the camera circling around Cooper’s head is inventive; the third and fourth, not so much. I expected better from a craftsman of Russell’s caliber. And the final half hour is a abomination, making a mockery of the film before it. What starts off as a serious examination of mental illness turns into an entirely different movie, one with nearly the exact same third act as “High School Musical.”
Cooper does a decent job, although certainly not up to the Oscar-bait level that he’s clearly attempting. Much more impressive is De Niro, in his first strong performance in years as Cooper’s obsessive-compulsive bookie father. Less impressive? Weaver, playing the mother with one of the most grating accents I’ve ever heard in a movie. She sounds like she’s doing an impression of George Costanza’s mother.
In the tradition of Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in “Knocked Up,” John Ortiz and Julia Stiles play a troubled secondary couple that’s much more interesting than the main characters. (Although, whichever casting director thought to cast Stiles and Lawrence as sisters, good thinking. If they made “Ten Things I Hate About You” today, it would unquestionably star Jennifer Lawrence.) There’s a cop character (Dash Mihok) who appears to be the only police officer in the greater Philadelphia area, yet for some reason he’s always right around the corner from wherever Cooper is. And Chris Tucker shows up, in his first non-“Rush Hour” role in over a decade, in a small part as Cooper’s friend from the institution.
“The Silver Linings Playbook” has been pushed with an at times dishonest advertising campaign, which omits all the mental health stuff and makes the movie look like a sweet romantic comedy against the backdrop of Philadelphia Eagles fandom- in other words, just like “Fever Pitch” (the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore Red Sox version, not the much superior English soccer original.)
Now I should mention that I live in Delaware County, just a few miles from the main events of the film. A key scene is set in a diner that I used to frequent, and the film’s climax was shot just a couple of blocks away from the theater where I saw the movie. The film gets some Philadelphia details right, but not all. Yes, De Niro’s home looks uncannily like the inside of a house in blue-collar suburban Philadelphia on an Eagles Sunday. A stadium parking lot brawl with a group of earnest fans on one side and racist hooligan types on the other rings true too; I’ve seen it happen more than once.
But on the other hand… the film is set in the fall of 2008. That the Phillies won the World Series, the city’s first sports championship in 25 years, during that time frame is noted in just one line of dialogue. Instead, we’re treated to a blow-by-blow of the 2008 Philadelphia Eagles season, a totally forgettable affair that ended, like most Eagles seasons, with an ignominious loss in the playoffs.
Then again, the football stuff all feels half-hearted and extraneous to the plot, while the NFL clearly didn’t cooperate with the movie. There’s not a second of game footage, a visit to the stadium never gets past the parking lot and, as a friend pointed out, the NFL logo on Cooper’s Eagles jersey is always at least partially obstructed by a necklace
But that’s nothing compared to the film’s ridiculous third act. Now, for a while I thought this would be the first movie in history in which the climactic moment of triumph was the lifting of a restraining order, but what the movie actually comes up with is somehow worse.
What started as serious, often harrowing examination of a life-and-death adult issue ends with… a dance contest, juxtaposed with an Eagles game. It’s all set up by a ludicrously contrived scene, involving a complex betting parlay, and no character acts anything like the person they’ve been in the movie up to that point. And even more strangely, is this film arguing that further exposure to the Philadelphia Eagles leads to an IMPROVEMENT in one’s mental health? That certainly hasn’t been the experience of most Eagles fans I know, especially this year.
Russell’s been an up-and-down director over the years. His “Flirting With Disaster” was one of the great unheralded comedies of the 1990s, and while I always found both “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees” overrated, “The Fighter” was a standout drama that earned its many awards. But ‘Silver Linings’ may be his worst film. If it beats out “Lincoln” or “Argo” for Best Picture, it’ll be a travesty.