You might not think that David O. Russell, the director behind The Fighter and I Heart Huckabees, would be an ideal match for a Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence romantic dramedy, at least based on the trailers. In a way, though, the pairing is weirdly fitting.
After all, Silver Linings Playbook is fundamentally about a man trying to regain control – something Russell has very publicly had issues with in the past, whether that meant screaming at Lily Tomlin on the Huckabees set or nearly getting into a fistfight with George Clooney while making Three Kings. Granted, nothing about Silver Linings Playbook is particularly challenging, but in Russell’s immensely skilled hands, that’s actually okay. This is mainstream, crowd-pleasing material made personal with the edge and intellect of Russell’s uniquely kinetic style.
That style is an extension of an aesthetic that Russell – previously somewhat of a classicalist – has been cultivating since The Fighter, where the camera is constantly bobbing around and reflecting the frazzled states of these fragile, volatile characters. It also so happens that Russell and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (who also did beautiful work in The Grey earlier this year) know how to use shaky cam better than the vast majority of filmmakers producing action movies today. When Pat Solitano, our bipolar hero played by Cooper, hurls a copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms out of his attic window in the middle of the night, it’s no wonder that the subsequent camerawork is as fast and loose as his temperament.
Books aren’t the only things being tossed around in the Solitano household though, as Pat (fresh out of an eight-month stint in a mental hospital) and his family constantly bicker amongst themselves, most notably when the Eagles are playing. Society might not see the rest of the Solitanos as being in need of the court-mandated therapy that Pat begrudgingly attends, but when you see how obsessive-compulsive Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) gets on football day, you realize that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.
Of course, none of this would be as effective as it is without strong performances, and thankfully, Russell has always excelled at getting the best out of his actors, with this being no exception. Neither Cooper nor Lawrence has ever been this good before, with the former pushing his natural smarmy swagger to a manic yet endearing place that compliments Lawrence’s gruff sweetness nicely. It’s De Niro who truly gets to excel though, which is a statement that (after a seemingly endless multitude of Fockers movies) always feels good to express. As Pat Sr. – the loving patriarch still struggling to express that love to his eldest son – De Niro manages to be alternately gentle, frustrated, regretful, and at his most excited moments, just as frenzied as his progeny. The character in question could easily have become a stock archetype, but in De Niro’s hands, every quirk hits home.
And that’s Silver Linings in a nutshell. Love is found, family bonds are reunited, there’s even a climactic dance competition, and it all sounds so disastrously formulaic, but Russell lends a scrappy energy and a heart to the proceedings that make those clichés feel genuinely vibrant. It’s not as weighty as The Fighter and Three Kings, or as freewheelingly goofy as Huckabees and Flirting with Disaster, but like its main character, Silver Linings Playbook manages to find peace in balance, at least tonally. That is to say, it’s a movie about madness that only David O. Russell could have made.