David O. Russell brings up a romantic Playbook
By Armond White
Pat and Tiffany, a recently paroled psychiatric patient and young widow in David O, Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, argue on the street of their Pennsylvania neighborhood, pouring out their anxieties and defenses–all the time emanating undeniable sexual attraction. This happens so startlingly fast that it’s funny–and surprisingly moving. When Russell stages a second, similar duet, it’s Halloween and the warring couple is surrounded by costumed phantoms–not psychotic delusions or trick-or-treating children but adults dressed up in play-acted pagan pageantry.
It’s a new kind of madcap, slyly evoking the temper of the times. Quick-witted Russell sports his own cleverness but he’s chuffed with the implicit goodness and potential well-being that surrounds Pat and Tiffany. Problem is, they’re so frustrated and tangled, they can’t easily enjoy it themselves. Lovers, friends and families fighting each other define Russell’s bracingly contemporary style of screwball comedy.
With the luck of good casting and sharp instincts Russell can make the banal electric–as when Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) first meet. It suggests a post-Hollywood version of Bringing Up Baby, unexpectedly resurrecting the idea of movie stars with actors who don’t have Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn’s glamour but who emanate genuine sexual intensity.
Cooper has been a problematic film actor, given to shallow, unlikable characters in regrettable projects like The Hangover movies. Attempting depth in the misconceived but occasionally touching The Words, Cooper’s unsubtle blue eyes conveyed the opposite of sensitivity. That was perfect for scoundrel roles like in The Wedding Crashers but all wrong for romantic drama. Russell identifies the pain in Cooper’s volatile mischief. Pat’s bipolar touchiness (triggered by hearing Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” the song he connects with his breakdown) comes from his unstable innocence. He can’t make sense of people’s failings and uses smart-ass cynicism abruptly, to undercut everyone around him. It is the role of Cooper’s career.
Lawrence’s contemporary waifs in Winter’s Bone and The Beaver had pubescent ripeness (cheapened in the claptrap of The Hunger Games) and Russell captures her still in bloom. Her babyish cheeks and cloudy gaze sync with Cooper’s cynical jock gleam: Pat and Tiffany “accidentally” jog together, sharing the same, manic energy which, as in Bringing Up Baby, is the substance of their romance.
Evoking Bringing Up Baby doesn’t mean that Silver Linings Playbook is equal to one of the greatest movies ever made but the comparison is helpful, and earned. Russell unpretentiously depicts Pat and Tiffany’s scared suburban lives as if entering the cloud-cuckoo land of pixilated 1930s Hollywood-America. His surface realism disguises a deeper enchantment–which Cooper and Lawrence’s sexiness confirms. So does the perfectly tuned behavior of Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver as Pat’s fraught, concerned parents (home and sports fanatics) and the superbly-cast bonhomie of Chris Tucker as a clinic-mate, Shea Whigam as a competitive brother, Julia Stiles as a competitive sister and John Ortiz as a best friend. They help Russell’s precarious balancing act: Silver Linings Playbook adduces modern absurdity, where meds and psychiatry treat our ailments, in the relatable, classical terms of farce.
TV shows like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and The New Normal turn everyday eccentricity banal. (They substitute sexual vulgarity for erotic attraction and emotional commitment–coarsening how people view and respond to personal crises.) Russell is one of the American Eccentrics directors who sees past crises to a larger, humane vision. In his previous hit The Fighter, the wastrel brother’s attempt to make peace with his hot-tempered sister-in-law was a moment of surprising solace. Russell avoids the tragic dysfunction typical of indie films and their nihilistic cliches.
Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t achieve perfect farce form; Russell have might have embraced the climactic dance competition and shifted Pat and Tiffany’s rapport to pop ecstasy. Instead, the film’s undiagnosed bipolar structure is of its time. For Russell, romance is, to quote crazy-sane Pat: “In my back of my head.”
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair