Unfairly and even detrimentally identified as a rebellious artist and one of the pioneers of New Hollywood, David O. Russell carries the unearned burdened of being a director to connect cinephilia to the masses. To my mind, Russell is not a radical. I’ve always thought of him more as an amateur jazz musician with aspirations to be Jimi Hendrix. He’s just a lucky one whose finger is close enough to the mainstream pulse to make his commitment to the “experimental” rise above the crowd into multiplexes. In some regards, he’s a classic Hollywood director posing as an indie darling. Russell’s newest, Silver Linings Playbook, is a romantic comedy about a recently divorced, mentally unstable man named Pat who befriends an equally unstable, but charmingly beautiful recent widow named Tiffany. Pat desperately wants to battle through his problems and put his marriage back together, while Tiffany wishes Pat would see her as his “silver lining.”
Silver Linings Playbook has been marketed as a romantic comedy and as such, it brings the dichotomy of “indie” director and Hollywood machine even closer to the forefront. But where Russell’s prior films were free jazz, this one’s two hours of pots and pans being banged together, held as one only by a clear-cut derivative path that the narrative must go. As long as it hits certain beats then something like music will be made. The outcome of mixed chaos and standard romantic comedy has enough dizzying strangeness to make it a satisfying work.
Anyone who’s dealt with mental illness knows that the word “things” has an even greater meaner for those suffering. People become obsessed with “things.” Like Pat’s dad’s Eagles paraphernalia. And everyone has a “thing.” Like Pat’s obsession with his wedding song or Tiffany’s need to for attention parlayed into sex with everyone she encounters. Similarly, mentally unstable people become highly obsessed with themselves, their own pursuits, and their illness. This can make for a consistent round of on-the-nose discussion revolving around the person whose illness has overtaken them. Silver Linings Playbook does a great job of bringing “things” to the fore, seeing the utility in characters who speak directly about themselves. It’s a helpful tool in drama to have people who are unable to stop saying exactly what’s on their minds.
Borrowing a page from the stylings of his early films, Silver Linings looks like it was shot on a lens that’s longer than reasonable. The effect is a congested traffic jam of characters always extra close to each other, yelling improvised lines of dialogue. The camera’s job is to chase the characters around, retaining clean frames before the moment combusts. As a result, the picture unravels like a top being spun out of control. Unlike his other work, this one has a script with a tried progression drawn out in front of it. The creative exercises take a backseat to all the predictable beats. The audience might feel one step ahead of Russell’s narrative, able to see scenes about to occur before they happen.
Like Sideways, this film will get attention for being a “date movie” that’s as fun for the boys as the girls. The conspicuous football metaphor (like everything else, shamelessly repeated throughout) will partially appeal to men. But less enjoyably, the obviously misogynistic themes of a woman who fauns over a man because he’s, well, because he’s attractive, can’t be overlooked. Sure they relate to each other, but Tiffany’s obsession with Pat borders on irrational, especially for someone so beautiful and narcissistic. It’s a man’s kind of romantic comedy, one that promotes a fantasy all of us wish we could live. Who wouldn’t want Jennifer Lawrence to chase them? As a film goes, however, the basic conceit feels forced and irresponsible. Like the mental illness angle itself, one must wonder if there’s anything actually being explored between these two characters.
The casting of name actors without much semblance of believable chemistry, occasionally makes the film feel like line readings. It’s not unlike watching overzealous audition footage of young actors trying their damnedest to impress the camera. Lawrence stands out as a committed lead with layers, but the script puts her in the same damsel in distress, in need of a man, situations that hinder so many other less celebrated films of this kind.
It’s strange to see Russell’s name next to what will likely be one of the biggest crowd pleaser of the year, but alas, that’s what’s he’s created with Silver Linings Playbook. Taken outside the context of its already overblown buzz, the film plays as a cute addition to some of the better romantic comedies of the past decade. Exhibiting the smart whimsy of Punch Drunk Love and the romance of Love Actually, Silver Linings makes for an enjoyable, if not entirely memorable, experience. [B-]