Imagine you are working on a painting. You know that it will not be a great painting; it is not going to break new ground or be looked back upon as a masterpiece, but you are putting a new spin on a familiar style in a pretty irresistible way. Now imagine you drop your bucket of paint on your pet dog, and your dog shakes it off, getting paint over your work so that it is clearly recognizable but full of large distractions.
If your painting were a movie, it would be David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, the winner of the Audience Award at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival. It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, as Bradley Cooper instills the mean-spirited, bipolar Pat with a good-hearted and apologetic likability. The real star, however, is Jennifer Lawrence, who doubles-down against Cooper’s safer but more restrained performance, and she wins every scene as the equally crazy Tiffany. Both have a past plagued by a mental disorder, both have a missing spouse, and both deny their attraction to each other. O. Russell is far more worried about Pat’s past than Tiffany, but every hint we get about Tiffany’s creates intrigue while Pat’s are dispersed at the most manipulative moments and then quietly forgotten. Tiffany is far too close to a manic-pixie-dream-girl to be a feminist triumph, but she’s reassuringly human in a film where, too often, characters seem inhuman as often as they seem to be suppressing their humanity out of fear.
But clichéd writing aside, Silver Linings Playbook tells its story with charm; the chemistry between Pat and Tiffany comes right off the screen, and the array of challenges they face in finding love are unique and fun. Where that paint-covered dog really shows up is in the subplots. Silver Linings Playbook has so many and drops them so quickly that I cannot help but think that O. Russell wrote a dozen drafts of the script, could not decide which was best, and combined the most unique points in the final product regardless of coherence. The beginning of the film is so awkwardly written, the dialogue so unnatural, that the film cannot help but change its tone. Yet every time it finds its groove, it loses it again. A necklace motif totally disappears after only one mention, the role of Pat’s wedding song is clumsily written off (or solved in an unrealistic and cop-out way, depending on how much you can suspend your disbelief), and the “incident” in Pat’s past is exploited so heavily that it would be a blessing for it to disappear if not for the fact that it is referenced so much within the first half hour of the film that its absence later is enough to distract for its remaining runtime.
Still, Silver Linings Playbook still has enough to charm to entertain on its sustained sequences of sharp dialogue and on Lawrence’s performance. Occasionally the jokes are made far outside the realms of possibility—wait until we are outside the football stadium—but for the most part they come naturally and with genuine wit. After the dark, non-stop intensity of The Fighter (2010), O. Russell was clearly itching to inject some humor into his work, and it pays off here, distracting from broken plotlines that would ruin a movie that was not so effortlessly adorable. The laughs are as honest as you will find in the cinema all year, and they come with a level of profundity, too; this kind of subtle, universal commentary is the same thing The Fighter was anchored on, and although it comes in a very different form here, it makes the movie survive in the memory far longer than one would expect.
Much of that charm comes in the form of an effective conceit: O. Russell lets the cat out of the bag in a hurry. We know from the first meeting between Pat and Tiffany exactly where it is going and we also have a pretty good idea of how it is going to get there. At first, it’s more complex and less predictable family dynamics that keep us involved. Pat’s dad (an over-directed but effective Robert De Niro) is an extremely superstitious gambler who thinks Pat watching football games improves the chances of an Eagles win, and Tiffany’s brother-in-law is Pat’s best friend, and he is going through some marital problems, too. Tiffany’s family is quickly forgotten, but Pat’s provides hilarious counterpoint to the romance. On one hand, the two plot-lines give a lot of laughs and never detract from the movie. On the other hand, they add up mostly to a pretty good but meaningless picture that should have been more than what it was.
And that is exactly what that painting is, as a result of that annoying dog. There’s unnecessary marks splattered all over, and it heavily detracts from what could be an enjoyable work underneath. That’s what Silver Linings Playbook is, too; too many ideas that do not come together, but a respectable execution on the most important one. With modest ambitions and too much muddling, it is quite hard to remember this one as anything special, but it also could be far worse than it is.