Mental illness doesn’t seem like a likely subject on which to anchor a comedy. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about a quarter of Americans are living with a diagnosable mental disorder—ranging from depression to schizophrenia to autism—but it’s not exactly a go-to film trope. Nevertheless, David O. Russell’s optimistic, joyful film Silver Linings Playbook manages to capture the experience of mental illness in a way that is both truthful to the reality of bipolar disorder, and a life-affirming portrayal of recovery.
The movie opens as Pat (Bradley Cooper) prepares to leave the mental institution where he’s been treated for the past eight months. Silver Linings Playbook relies on Pat to convey the experience of a healing mental patient, and Cooper delivers wonderfully. Pat’s determination to change, and his frustration when he backslides are portrayed with enough passion to be effective, but Cooper never goes overboard into melodrama territory. The actor, who is best known for appearing in the Hangover films has, through a series of smart choices, managed to elevate his career to that of Serious Actor. Pat’s mood swings and outbursts, which could have become overbearing in another actor’s hands, are instead moments in which the audience gains insight into his troubled experience.
Did I mention that this film is a comedy? Despite the heavy subject matter, Russell (who also wrote the movie, based on the novel by Matthew Quick) deftly sets up a narrative that is funny, engaging, and original enough that the last half hour is just as enjoyable as the first. A large portion of the jokes are dealt out to supporting players, including a surprisingly sweet role by Chris Tucker, in his first non-Rush Hour film in 16 years. Robert De Niro, who’s taken to phoning in most of his credits of the past decade, is less cartoonish and more honest than we’ve seen him in years. De Niro plays Pat Sr., a Philadelphia Eagles fan-turned-bookie so enamored with his hometown team that he literally only appears onscreen wearing Eagles paraphernalia.
And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence. Though she doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film, Lawrence quickly establishes herself as a major presence, and a perfect foil to Cooper’s character. She plays Tiffany, a tough, dramatic young widow who’s not particularly sane either. Both Tiffany and Pat speak entirely without subtext, voicing what everyone around them is thinking, often at inappropriate moments. Pat’s speech is spiced with psychiatric jargon, and his and Tiffany’s dialogue, particularly her righteous diatribe near the end of the film, is some of Russell’s best work ever.
Pat’s motivation for getting better is entirely based on reestablishing his relationship with his wife, who’s filed a restraining order against him after his breakdown. Tiffany promises to get a letter to her … if he’ll be Tiffany’s partner in a ballroom dance competition. I know this premise sounds a little weak, but Russell handles the story with clever delicacy, and the combative relationship between Tiffany and Pat becomes the backbone of the film. Lawrence elevates everything she’s in, and this role, for which she won a Golden Globe just last week, is no exception.
Lawrence isn’t the only one getting acclaim for Silver Linings Playbook, which itself has decent odds of winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards next month. Russell, who was also nominated last year for The Fighter, has again gotten a Best Director nomination in addition to a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. Cooper, De Niro and Jacki Weaver, who plays Pat’s mother, are all nominated in their respective acting categories. In fact, this film is the first since 1981’s Reds to have a horse in all four acting races.
Much of the film’s brilliance can be attributed to Russell’s direction. He employs a risky filmic technique, whirling the camera around the actors’ heads and using a variety of quick zooms, close ups and rapid cuts. But the approach pays off. The camerawork wordlessly conveys Pat’s range of emotions, from anger to hysteria to love. Danny Elfman’s classic rock score, with just a dash of Jack White thrown in, builds upon the expert acting and direction to pull the audience further into this off-kilter endearing little world.
Silver Linings Playbook strikes a delicate balance, dexterously avoiding sappiness in favor of candid joy mixed with a touch of misery. Rarely have I emerged from a theater with such genuine happiness. Who would have thought that a film about bipolar disorder might just be the feel-good movie of the year?