The Plays of Life: ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Silver Linings Playbook ends up being about what its title suggests—though not in the way one might expect. The story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man whose life falls to shambles after he viciously beats the man he catches his wife cheating on him with, is one that literally and metaphorically necessitates a playbook of sorts.

After coming out of an eight-month stint in a mental hospital, Pat approaches life much in the way a star quarterback in the final seconds of the Super Bowl does: he looks for every angle back into the life that has since moved on without him, seeking out any sudden blitzes or jukes he might be able to make to get his ex-wife Nikki (Brea Bee)—whom he still refers to as his wife—to fall back in love with him. His dogged determination is manifested in the DeSean Jackson jersey he so frequently sports. But of course, whenever there’s a big game to be played, the opponent is going to be formidable, and in Pat’s case, he faces an opponent unlike anything he could have imagined: the fiery Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow with a psyche just as troubled as his.

Based on Matthew Quick’s 2008 debut novel of the same name, Silver Linings Playbook navigates the scrawled, intersecting lines of the playbook Pat takes to get back at normalcy; that is, the only normalcy he’s used to. As he candidly tells his psychologist, he suffers from bipolar disorder. After “the incident”, as he calls it, triggers this psychological instability, it becomes plain that he has to do quite a bit of work if he wants anything like a shred of the way things were before. (Though it should be noted that this reality includes a Chris Tucker performance devoid of comic gesticulations, a considerable gift to Pat and everyone else here.)

Unfortunately, with Nikki unwilling and unable to approach him (due in part to a restraining order), he has to seek other methods. His parents Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jackie Weaver) try to draw him back into the calmness of the home life, even as the former struggles to get by running a book. His friends Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles) invite him over for dinner, hoping that placid dinner conversation will keep his temper from rising above anything resembling a simmer. Upon doing this, however, they introduce to Pat the biggest game changer that could exist for him, the one thing that will force him to abandon any of his standard plays. From the minute she walks into Veronica and Ronnie’s living room, it’s clear that there is something in store for her and Pat—even if they aren’t fully aware of it at first.

While any film will have its naysayers, all that can be said about Lawrence’s performance as Tiffany is this: believe the hype. Her girlish visage frequently betrays her age (she was 21 at shooting), but in every other way she transcends her youth, in so doing giving a commanding performance that is deserving of any piece of glitzy hardware she received this past awards season. The hysterical woman persona is one prone to sexism or cliché, but Lawrence gives Tiffany a grace in her emotional volatility.

Though she’s just as troubled as Pat, Tiffany is his ultimate foil, for whereas he seeks any number of erratic plays in the hopes that Nikki will be in the end zone, she forces him to be disciplined. Upon finding out that Tiffany is still in touch with Nikki, Pat asks that she slip her a letter, a huge risk considering that would be in violation of his post-treatment conditions. She acquiesces, but only on the terms that he dance with her in a competition that requires she have a partner.

The football metaphors here may seem cheesy, rote, or perhaps even misled. For while there is much worship of the Philadelphia Eagles present, it appears that the crux of Silver Linings Playbook—despite what the title might indicate—is the relationship between Tiffany and Pat. This line of thought isn’t wrong; it is, in fact, the case. But the way in which director David O. Russell, who here tops his work in the also excellent The Fighter, uses football as a framing device is so crucial to the success of this story. Cooper and Lawrence’s performances were rightly praised through the pre-Oscar talking head parade, but the role that resides at the core of this film is De Niro’s.

At first his superstitions about the Eagles only winning when his son is around come off as the stuff all sports fans do. But as Pat persists further in his obsessive quest to get Nikki back, it becomes clear that much of his neuroses stems from his father. Whenever the Eagles lose, it takes everything for Pat Sr. to not completely lose it.

Almost all of his conversations revolve around the sport. Even Dolores gives into Pat Sr’s sport-centric life, making sure to always have food ready on game day. Her role is tough, and Weaver does her best to bring life to an underwritten role, which is somewhat understandable given the rage of the two men in her life. “Stuck in the middle” doesn’t even begin to cover it. The language of football and of mental illness are one and the same in the Solitano home. These language games, as Wittgenstein would call them, are ones that have quite a difficult time interacting. Watching Pat Sr. try to communicate with his son can often be uncomfortable to watch, as it’s clear they aren’t anywhere near on the same page of the playbook.

Curiously enough, for all the eccentricities Russell and this uniformly brilliant cast capture with gravitas, Silver Linings Playbook still rests on a bedrock of rom-com tropes. For a group of people so frequently out of control in their emotional expression, the paths they follow invariably lead (spoiler alert) to a conclusion where everybody ends up happy, and the past two hours of neurotic behavior becomes a thing of the distant past.

The lead-up to climactic dance competition scene, where Pat Sr. places a “parlay” bet where the Eagles have to beat the Cowboys and Tiffany and Pat have to get a minimum of a five (out of ten) average at the competition, is one of those “isn’t that convenient” devices that almost makes one chuckle upon its instigation. Fortunately, Cooper and Lawrence bring oodles of goofy charm to the dance; there’s no magical moment where a bevy of secret dance skills come bursting out, leading to a perfect ten score that leaves all the dance professionals speechless.

Even as the sappier elements of the story begin to take over, these two leads remind us that no matter how much live devolves into formula, we’re all wackjobs underneath. Some of us will never be able to land all the right dance moves. That, for better or worse, is something that all of our playbooks will have to accommodate for. And in the end that’s exactly what Silver Linings Playbook communicates resoundingly: for all of the blitzes and jukes we can concoct in a difficult game, we will always carry our flaws with us.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo of Silver Linings Playbook looks wonderful in either viewing option, though the Blu-ray has an obvious edge, especially if played on a nice television. The bonus features included range from several excellent featurettes to deleted scenes.

RATING 7 / 10