Mental illness and family issues are clearly very close to director David O Russell’s heart having dealt with them in some of his previous films, namely The Fighter and I Heart Huckabees. It is also known that he has personal experience of mental illness with his son, which makes Silver Linings Playbook perhaps his most personal film yet.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital following a breakdown after he caught his wife having an affair. He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who has her own problems after the death of her husband and subsequent firing from her job after sleeping around the office. Pat still believes that he and his ex-wife are meant to be together and Tiffany agrees to help him in exchange for him being her partner in a dance competition. Meanwhile, Pat’s father, Pat Sr., is struggling with to come to terms with life with a mentally ill son.
It can be difficult to handle the subject of mental illness subtly in film, particularly in mainstream cinema where things often have to be explicitly spelled out. However, Silver Linings Playbook manages to portray mental illness in a realistic and sensitive way without resorting to straight jackets and in doing so elevates the film way above the standard of the usual ‘romantic comedy’ that it was so wrongly marketed as. The ordinary suburban setting also helps to bring a much more grounded feel to the film, reminding you that mental illness is something that can occur in each and every family.
Silver Linings Playbook is still a film that could have easily descended into mediocrity were it not for the outstanding performances from just about every cast member. Bradley Cooper successfully shrugs off his The Hangover image and gives a superb, wholly believable performance that shows just what he can do with the right role. He manages to convey both the subtle and more drastic sides of mental illness with a deftness many may not have thought him capable. Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fine performance and perfectly conveys Tiffany’s constant battle with herself. Lawrence has shown some intelligent role choices already and looks set for truly big things.
Backing up these two excellent leads are some equally impressive supporting performances. Jacki Weaver is beautifully understated as Pat’s mother Delores, whilst Chris Tucker is entertaining as Danny, a friend of Pat’s from the hospital. However, it’s Robert DeNiro as Pat’s father who shines perhaps brightest of all. Pat Sr has his own demons to battle and is clearly not sure how to cope with a mentally ill son. He clearly feels helpless but his willingness to help and unconditionally love his son is truly touching.
Whilst the vast majority of the film strays away from usual rom-com fare, it does revert to type slightly towards the end, although by this point it has earned its ending and gives a payoff most viewers will appreciate and understand. Silver Linings Playbook deserves to be seen to act as proof that romantic comedies can be clever, thought-provoking and can tackle serious subject matter.