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Boy Meets Girl, Russell Style
Reviewed by Josh Bell ’02
[Film] Filmmaker David O. Russell found the biggest acclaim and success of his career by working as a director for hire on 2010’s boxing drama The Fighter, but before that he’d spent his
time focusing on oddball stories about abrasive but endearing outcasts, in movies such as Flirting with Disaster and I ❤ Huckabees.
Russell’s newest film, Silver Linings Playbook (Weinstein Co.), recalls his earlier work while retaining the crowd-pleasing approach that worked so well for him on The Fighter. Structurally, Silver Linings isn’t so different from any number of mainstream romantic comedies, but its details are distinctive and vibrant, bringing emotional honesty and a bit of danger to the familiar boy-meets-girl story.
Jennifer Lawrence (with Bradley Cooper) won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Tiffany.
For starters, the boy and girl in this case are mentally unstable, barely functioning members of society, and although Silver Linings is mostly a comedy, it highlights the uglier realities of mental illness. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, who’s just been released from a state-run mental institution after serving eight months for assaulting his wife’s lover. He’s placed in the care of his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver), who clearly aren’t much more stable than he is, and sent to resume his life in his suburban Philadelphia neighborhood.
The problem is that the life Pat wants to resume isn’t really his anymore, thanks to the restraining order his estranged wife has filed against him. Determined to win her back, he sets out on a strict regimen of exercise, reading (she teaches high school English, so he follows her syllabus) and relentless positivity (hence the title). Pat is so focused on reuniting with the wife who wants nothing to do with him that he doesn’t see the obvious love interest right in front of him—pretty standard behavior for a romantic-comedy lead. To be fair, the recently widowed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is at least as unbalanced as Pat is, and just as aggressively off-putting. But their shared bluntness and single-minded focus on what they believe will improve their lives (in Tiffany’s case, it’s competing in an open-call dance contest) draw them together immediately.
Pat and Tiffany’s story arc will be predictable to anyone familiar with Hollywood romantic comedies, and Russell (who wrote the movie’s screenplay based on a novel by Matthew Quick) does indulge in a few standard rom-com devices (including an overly tidy and upbeat ending). But Russell successfully earns the moments of connection between the two main characters, as their support of each other’s unrealistic goals exists in sort of a manic feedback loop. Pat’s wife doesn’t want him back. Tiffany has no chance of succeeding in the dance contest. But it’s the futility of their endeavors that makes Pat and Tiffany so appealing, even when they act out in antisocial and counterproductive ways.
Russell’s script and direction deserve only part of the credit for that; Cooper and Lawrence make Pat and Tiffany into genuine, relatable people whose flaws are apparent but who are nevertheless appealing. Lawrence, especially, gives a fantastic performance in a tricky role: A lesser actor might put too much focus on Tiffany’s stereotypical qualities—as a free-spirited woman whose love is the one thing that saves a troubled man—but in Lawrence’s hands she’s as dark and complex as Pat (which makes the story’s easy resolution all the more disappointing). De Niro, who rarely rouses himself from a stupor these days, brings a prickly edge to the role of Pat’s emotionally stunted gambling-addict father, and the actors in smaller roles (including Weaver, Julia Stiles and Chris Tucker) are strong as well.
Silver Linings never shies away from the real difficulties of mental illness, but it also allows its characters the kind of inspirational triumphs seen only in the movies. It’s an entertaining, funny, romantic film about people with serious, debilitating problems, and Russell pulls off the balance of intensity and lightheartedness with expert skill.
Photo courtesy of Weinstein Co.