American filmmaker David O. Russell has long dealt with notions of the family in an interesting manner. Thematic echoes ring out through his near 20-year career in the movies. His feature debut, Spanking The Monkey told of the ultimate taboo, of mother and son in an effectual relationship, yet presented such dark matter as comedy (albeit of the blackest variety), while his partially successful sophomore effort Flirting With Disaster tells of a road trip being undertaken by one particularly obtuse family unit searching for another, as Ben Stiller’s Mel Coplin searches, alongside his wife, newborn and potential for his own parents, who gave him up for adoption at a young age. Dysfunction meets dysfunction, with a chaotic commute that puts the meta into metaphorical, with the newborn babe robbed of a name until the child’s lineage is established. The through line continued, albeit more subtly in the director’s greatest work to date, 1999’s Three Kings, which features one of the great long-distance phone calls between loved ones, coupled with a lead protagonist that gets by without family, while much was made of just how much the presented subject of last years The Fighter takes a back seat to the soap opera-like, stranger-than-fiction familiar relationships that draw that particular film together. This presentation of the maladjusted family unit stems as far back as Russell’s first short film, 1987’s Bingo Inferno, in which the filmmaker utilised the familiar model to critique and analyse the American national culture itself (Bingo Inferno was subtitled somewhat obviously as A Parody On American Obsessions).
While the film itself is arguably his least interesting, I Heart Huckabees did bring with it the closest thing to the station presented in Silver Linings Playbook, in the form of Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn (Russell has a knack for great character names), a New York fireman hugely affected by the events of 9/11. Corn is a proto, bigger issues take on the much more personal Pat Solitano, Bradley Cooper’s lead here in Silver Linings Playbook. With Solitano’s issues laying with the personal the character makes for a keen inverted take on Corn.
Silver Linings Playbook opens with the release of Solitano from a secure mental facility, following a breakdown inspired by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity with a former colleague. Moving back home with his parents Solitano sets out to win his wife back by employing the techniques learnt during his incarceration. By becoming a better, more positive person he will win back the love of his life, or so he thinks. Somewhere along the route he meets Tiffany, a young woman similarly recovering from a breakdown, albeit in this case inspired by the death of her husband. The scene is set for romance of the comedic and dramatic variety to play out, and that it does.
Depending on your how high your capacity for schmaltz is, the above synopsis might fill thee with dread, but alas such concerns couldn’t be more further misplaced. While the concept is hardly groundbreaking, its the execution that works so well. Re-appropriating the romanic comedy for the age of the cynic, Russell has crafted a sly, clever piece that works well on several levels. Not only is it an implausibly successful crowd pleaser, but it’s respectful of the serious matter at the heart of the movie (mental illness) and refreshingly void of patronisation, while Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan’s rendition of the latter’s Girl From The North North Country makes for the basis of an unlikely musical accompaniment, with the archetypical montage of such rom-com fair subverted to the Nth degree. Pacing almost becomes a problem at times, with two scenes in particular running the risk of overstaying their welcome, while a late-second act reveal threatens to see things unravel, yet ultimately it’s steered right. This is no doubt thanks largely to a very impressive cast, at the top of which stand Bradley Cooper as Solitano and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany. Lawrence turns in her first notable turn since Winter’s Bone, with the actress finally free of the shackles of the underwhelming mainstream attachments that clung in the wake of Oscar recognition, while Cooper, if you’ll forgive the use of a cliche, proves revelatory. The supporting cast is just as effective, with Jacki Weaver, hot off of the back of another tale of dysfunction and family, 2010’s Animal Kingdom, and Shea Whigham as Solitano’s mother and sibling respectively on fine form, while it’s the family patriarch that proves most exciting, with the film featuring that rarest of post-millenial instances: a remarkable Robert De Niro performance.
As mentioned above, Russell is dealing with some fairly complex emotional issues with Silver Linings Playbook, and while it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for one to suggest that the director’s own personal issues may be informing the tone of the picture, it may also be said that such conclusions would be overstating the matter. Anger permeates throughout Russell’s work. One of the first images seen in Flirting With Disaster concerns a woman smashing a car window with a sledgehammer, with that picture in particular concerned with an emotional frustration made physical, while I Heart Huckabees deals with similar material, and yet it remains a keen irony that his least abrasive pictures, Three Kings and The Fighter and their tales of war and pugilism are the two relevant around activities almost universally derided as being barbaric. With Silver Linings Playbook Russell has found the perfect middle ground between the bigger picture and the personal story, with the film that might just be his most successful to date.