Culture Street

By Justin Wolfers

In a year of films that pride themselves on huge scales – the Lincoln biopic, the War on Terror, the C.I.A. – David O. Russell finds drama and emotional depth in what could be most easily described as a suburban romantic comedy. It’s the first time I've enjoyed a so-called rom-com so much and actually thought it was 'good' – that is to say, well-crafted, tackling real issues, and full of performances of depth and insight. The trend often seems to be that critically lauded films have to be harrowing – Amour is the perfect example – but David O. Russell has adapted a small-scale story and effortlessly extracted psychological drama, comedy, and romance, all at once.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) is fresh out of a stint in a Baltimore mental institution, still slightly unhinged bi-polar, and still very much in love with his wife – who has a restraining order out against him. He comes home to his apprehensive parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), who try and support him and push him forward, despite his obsessive behaviour and his unwillingness to take medication. Soon, he strikes up a bizarre friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an equally unhinged, recently widowed woman who seeks out Pat's help in, of all things, a semi-pro dance competition – in return for her help to aid him in his attempts to win back his wife. Their interactions are simultaneously playful, excruciating, and sweet, and their performances give meat and essence to characters that would be thin sketches in a regular rom-com.

Cooper's fixating stare, for one, when he locks onto an idea that he thinks will help him win back his wife, is brilliant, and he is at all times matched by Lawrence. Her mature, intelligent portrayal of a vulnerable and depressed woman, asserts power and vitality upon a typically self-pitying, unsympathetic role. Instead, she owns her messiness and instability, and champions it as something to aspire to, acknowledging her idiosyncrasies in a way that Pat can't quite seem to.

Equally, De Niro's turn as a hugely superstitious football fanatic could so easily be a stock comic-relief role, if this were a Meet The Parents-style flick, but he brings depth and weight to to it – a father full of regrets and half-achieved dreams, trying to make amends in difficult circumstances.

It’s in this way that Silver Linings Playbook continually defies its assigned genre, its plot summary, its dorky title. In essence, the actual subject of the film is happy endings – whether they’re owed to us, need to be worked for, or unachievable. At all times we feel safe in Russell's hands. The emotional highs are earned, he doesn't manufacture a stock ending as can so often be the case in feel-good films, when there's fifteen minutes to go and suddenly everything is fine. Instead, we revel in realistic decisions, small achievements, family solidarity. And to me that's far more emotionally affecting than prizing drama out of the huge-scale epics that we're so used to seeing all over the Oscar nominations. Russell seems to understand – as he did with The Fighter, in making the brothers’ relationship the centerpiece – that the real drama, the real sense of conflict and tension that makes a film affecting, isn't based on its grand proportions but on its attention to detail.

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