Silver Linings Playbook Needs to Scrap its Script

Two wonderful performances in search of a worthy vehicle.

Directed by David O. Russell
Weinstein Group, 122 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)
* *

Need more confirmation that movies are in the creative doldrums? Silver Linings Playbook is up for numerous Oscars, including Best Picture, and it’s not even a good movie, let alone an Oscar-worthy nominee. Were it not for outstanding performances from leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, it would be one of the worst pieces of manipulative tearjerker schlock since Terms of Endearment.

Like so many bad films, Silver Linings Playbook can’t decide if it’s a drama, a romance, or a comedy. By trying to be all three, it doesn’t work as any of them. The setup is simple. Patrick Solatano Jr. (Cooper) comes unglued when he comes home early and finds his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) showering and groping with a colleague. Blind with rage and–we’re led to believe–latent mental instability, he nearly kills the guy. Because of that (script convenient) latency, Pat is sent to Excelsior, a mental health facility in Baltimore instead of jail, though he does end losing his home, job, and wife. Okay, let’s get it straight from the start. This film is set in Philadelphia and I used to work in Pennsylvania law enforcement. It’s extremely unlikely that Pat would have been sent anywhere except jail, and he surely wouldn’t have been shipped across state lines (which would have involved an enormous outflow of money).

Never mind that. We pick up the story eight months later when Pat’s mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), signs his discharge from the facility. Pat moves in with Dolores and paterfamilias Pat. Sr. (Robert DeNiro), who is making ends meet by running numbers. We quickly learn where Pat Jr. got his demon–his old man is textbook (or is stereotype?) OCD, a guy who truly believes that he can gamble his way back to solvency through the fortunes of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, as long as everyone wears the proper jerseys, touches an Eagles kerchief properly, and holds a set of remote controls at the correct height. Having Pat Jr. watch the game with him is part of the “mojo.” Except Pat Jr. is a wreck. He didn’t take his meds in the facility, thinks his therapy with psychiatrist Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher) is a joke, and believes he can cure himself through running, reading, and positive thinking. Part of the “cure” involves winning back Nikki, with whom he is obsessed.

Cooper is terrific in the role. He is a hyper hair trigger that can go off at any time and it doesn’t take much. His ineffectual mother is sympathetic, as are friends Ronnie (Jim Ortiz) and Danny (Chris Tucker), but they have issues of their own. Ronnie is in over his head with a big mortgage, a new baby, and a materialistic, free-spending wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles); and Danny is a frequent AWOL from Excelsior, where Pat met him. Water finds its own level in the form of Veronica’s troubled younger sister, Tiffany (Jessica Lawrence), who also came mentally unhinged when her husband was killed in an accident. The initial sparks fly when Pat and Tiffany spar over which one of them is crazier. Lawrence is every bit Cooper’s equal in a role in which she’s part icy Goth, part vulnerable sparrow, and part call-the-bullshit truth speaker.

Had the film centered on these two people moving toward one another in the healing process, this might have been a very good film. Alas, the film is junked up with paste-up characters: Veronica, a cop that shows up every time Pat goes off, an older jerk brother, and Kher playing one of the least convincing shrinks in movie history (and that’s quite a statement). DeNiro doesn’t do much except populate the film. Did Russell swallow a Political Correctness pill? Pat Jr. has an Indian psychiatrist, a Hispanic friend, and a black sidekick. In North Philly? If you think that’s unlikely, how about a plot that involves Pat Sr. needing to win a bet on an Eagles game to save his dream (and probably his house)? And he’s talked into taking it by none other than Tiffany, who delivers a snarky monologue that’s lifted from My Cousin Vinny with the automobile litany replaced by football stats. But let’s take it a step further down the path of absurdity. Even if the Eagles win, Pat St. can’t collect unless he also wins a side bet that Pat Jr. and Tiffany will score at least a 5 in a professional dance contest! Cue the music and let’s see how much of Saturday Night Fever we can pirate. And let’s throw in a few conventions such as an old-fashioned fistfight, Pat Jr. running through the streets of Philly (Rocky), and letters of questionable authorship (Cyrano).

What could have been an incisive look at mental illness dissolves into caper and lame comedy. The entire movie is a manipulative strip tease posing as a feel-good movie. It has the intellectual depth of junior high school, and it demeans the problems with which Cooper and Lawrence are wrestling. Lawrence may well win an Oscar in a not-so-strong pool of actresses and she’s so good that few would begrudge her. But if this film wins anything beyond that, the Oscars can officially be declared a joke. David O. Russell apparently wishes to be a Hollywood director in the worst way. He’s succeeded. –Rob Weir


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