Call me a cynic, but I am so over the romcom–the will-he-get-her-in-the-last-shot kiss. Also, I am done tearing up. Well, almost. I admit to wiping away some grit in my eye at the conclusion of Silver Linings Playbook, but that wasn’t due to this peculiar, quite good comedy’s shameless manipulation of my emo gene. It was mostly the joy of seeing something I’d never dreamed would translate to the silver screen actually and surprisingly materialize before my amazed eyes: a psychoanalytic celebration of American football fandom.
Yes, yes, I know that romantics will go to the movie for the celestial mating dance of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. They’ll get their money’s worth. And film lovers will love how it scans as a mix of Hamlet and Mamet, Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted. Even the flaws are endearing–Robert De Niro, our national loveable lug, again plays an obsessive eye-popping motormouth.
But this movie’s fast pulse comes from painting a solid portrait of a blue-collar Philadelphia Eagles-loyal neighborhood. The spot-on rants and dialogue make real poetry out of the unexpected: Mom churning out gameday “crabby snacks” and “homemades” (cheese steaks), the running joke about the Eagles’ most splendidly arrogant player, DeSean Jackson, who is to the NFL what Alcibiades was to Socrates’s famous dinner party on love, The Symposium.
People who don’t care about football or even hate it don’t have to worry–there are no semi-tough on-field scenes a la Jerry Maguire. David O. Russell’s direction and script make clear that this is a story about grief and mental illness. We live in a medicated age, and the riffs here on the lives of OCD and bipolar characters aren’t sidebars to the narrative. They are the story, in the sense that love only makes sense as a glorious disorder.
The plot opens with the release of Pat (Cooper) from the nuthouse, sprung by his mother (Jacki Weaver, who has a wonderful repertory of reaction shots). He’s obsessed with getting back with his estranged wife, who has a restraining order. Everyone tries to reason with him, but as we soon see, reason isn’t this family’s strong suit. Dad (De Niro) has lost his business and is making book on football games. He’s also florid OCD when it comes to the Eagles. Pat goes on a fancy set-up date with Tiffany (Lawrence), whose cop husband was killed by a drunk driver. After Pat (wearing his DeSean Jackson jersey) and Tiffany (in black lace goth) spend five minutes talking about their meds, they leave the dinner and are heading for a hookup when Pat defiantly announces, against all evidence, that he’s about to save his marriage–to the wife he caught in flagrante, which precipitated his assaulting her lover, which led to the nuthouse.
Romcom vets will recognize the second act complication–but plot is just the hoagie roll. Between the bread, the sandwich filling is salty and savory, veering from the antic to the nerve-wracking: Tiffany’s history of one-night stands, a ruinous bet by Dad, a dance contest, an exasperated cop who really doesn’t want to lock up Pat. Toss in a wacky fellow inmate from the asylum, well-played by a mercurial Chris Tucker, and a couple other sharply drawn supporting characters, and the result is practically effervescent. Amidst the fizz, Pat’s mental illness is actually kind of grounding. As are the Eagles.
Ever since Hamlet, madness and mental illness has been sucker bait for actors, screenwriters and directors. It all works just fine here. And as a bonus, Silver Linings Playbook offers up a sneaky way to suggest to your sports-addict Dad/Brother/Boyfriend/Husband that he really does need help.