With four Oscar nominations for acting, more than any other film in contention this year (and one of only a handful of films ever to be nominated in every acting category), as well as nods for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, it’s clear that David O Russell’s romantic comedy-drama struck a chord with Oscar voters that wasn’t immediately obvious from its relatively lackluster showing at the box office, where it grossed less than $30 million.
Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, (The) Silver Linings Playbook is the story of former teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper, acting nominee #1) whose life imploded when he beat his wife’s lover half to death after discovering them in flagrante delicto. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder (though we only see Pat’s ‘manic’ side, not his ‘depressive’ one), Pat is let off with a spell in a psychiatric institute, and a restraining order against his wife and her lover. Eight months later, Pat is released into the care of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, nominees #2 and #3), hoping to save his marriage with the help of a neighbor, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, nominee #4 and surprise winner of the Best Actress prize), who has a few issues of her own, being recently widowed, newly unemployed, and compulsively promiscuous. Tiffany slyly offers to sneak a letter to Pat’s estranged wife, Nikki (a barely seen Brea Bee), if he will partner her in a dance contest, which Pat sees as an opportunity to prove to Nikki that he’s a changed man. But is he?
Hollywood’s history with the subject of mental illness is patchy at best, with Silver Linings Playbook perhaps closest in spirit to Punch-Drunk Love and As Good As It Gets, in which moderately unbalanced men are romantically linked with emotionally wounded women. Here, however, Russell seems at pains to ensure his leading man’s disorder isn’t too much of an audience turn-off. Oddly, Pat’s bipolar nature seems to extend to the film itself. For the first hour, Silver Linings Playbook is a nuanced and an emotionally rich delight, packed with performances combining subtlety and emotional intensity, particularly from De Niro, who puts in his best work in years as the father trying to treat his son’s condition with 21st century sensitivity. The second hour, however, is a more muddled affair, as Russell struggles manfully to knit together the various plot strands, including the ‘Playbook’ elements that threaten to derail the primary narrative thrust. The silver lining is that, for all its faults, the film boasts four of the year’s best performances, and provides a temporary remedy for all sorts of modern emotional ailments, in easy-to-swallow form. ★★★