By Marc S. Sanders
Bipolar disorder can be a crippling ailment, not only to the person, but to his/her family as well. That, I imagine are the limits of my knowledge on the subject. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook will have you believe a way to embrace the disorder is to be involved with people who accept it and love you regardless.
Bradley Cooper is magnificent as Patrick; a hyperactive man suffering from his own demons. He is short tempered, confrontational, and prone to exhausting and uncontrollable outbursts. Because of that, he has lost his wife, his job, his friends and when the film begins, he is being picked up by his mother from an eight month court ordered stay in a mental institution on his way to live with his parents, Dolores and Patrick Sr., played brilliantly by Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro. Patrick is determined to rebuild his life. He feels confident that he is now on a positive track of exercise and healthy eating, and he wants to win back his wife. It is not so easy however, when Pat refuses to take his prescribed medication and his own father probably suffers from a similar disorder and he has to share a house with him. This means dealing with Pat Sr’s obsessive compulsiveness over his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, as well as his own short temper and his insistence on using family time with Pat Jr as a means to break the “jeu, jeu” that has cursed the team. Pat Jr. wants to move on with his life and find meaning and peace. His own obsessions with winning back his wife and overcoming witnessing the affair she was having behind his back do not help.
However, then Pat Jr meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence in her Oscar winning role) and her own past is tormenting her, following losing her policeman husband in the line of duty. It’s clear she has not overcome this experience and she has taken up dance, which she is teaching herself in a refurbished garage. Tiffany is not quick to accept Pat Jr, but eventually the moments necessary for any film about relationships line up despite some screaming and shoving.
It sure sounds like I’m describing a heavy, miserable drama, here. Reader, I’m not. David O. Russell offers up moments of comedy without any of his characters really trying. No one is outright normal in this film. They are all burdened with their own idiosyncrasies and diagnoses, even Pat Jr.’s therapist, who we learn is an obsessed, face painted Eagles fan himself. Russell repeatedly uses a steady cam (I believe) to rush right up into the face of his characters, individually, when a moment is overtaking him or her. It’s a way of showing that no one else in the room can see what the sufferer is seeing. Everyone else is bound by their own disorder. Russell uses this device to isolate the character that owns the scene whether it is Delores, who endures the aggravation of her husband and son, Tiffany who can not get over the loss of her husband at a young age, Pat Sr. who must live with his Eagles losing another game, or Pat Jr. who is only trying to adapt to a new way.
There is no calmness in the domesticity of Pat Jr’s life and it only feeds the fire of his bipolar disorder. What he needs is someone who will not shun or ignore the disorder but embrace it and Tiffany is that person. Tiffany is also the person who will beat up on Pat Jr in one scene to bring his self-involved neglect to light. A helpful gesture for Pat Jr, but not a fulfilling action for Tiffany. Then in another scene she will solely come to his defense. The best moment in the film belongs to Jennifer Lawrence as she storms through the door and quickly confronts DeNiro on his own shortcomings, basically disarming him with sports statistics of every Philadelphia team, only to prove that Pat Jr had nothing to do with the outcomes of these games. Lawrence is harboring a machine gun of dialogue and she does not let up. DeNiro, I’m sure, loves to balance scenes like this with talent of this caliber. (I’d imagine he was missing great acting moments like this when he was shooting his Focker movies.) Russell wisely captures most of this scene in one shot. He is well aware of his leading actress’ strengths.
The ending is as quirky and inspired as Little Miss Sunshine, where Pat Jr and Tiffany participate in a dance competition that has everything is on the line, not just for their own sanity, but also for that of Pat Sr and the rest of the family. At the risk of spoiling a piece of the story, I have to recognize the dance sequence in this climax. Russell and his choreographer wisely mix it up with contemporary music that quickly switches over to head banging heavy metal and back to contemporary again. I caught it as an allegory of the mood swings these characters, especially Tiffany and Pat Jr, go through. The dance is messy, unsophisticated, aggressive and most of all it is adorable and lovable all at the same time. Psychologically, there must be something eating at Pat Sr and Pat Jr, and Tiffany and the rest of the cast, but that is, in no way, a reason not to love them.