David O. Russell has long established himself as a reliable purveyor of Hollywood quirk. His films, whatever their faults, have tended to err on the side of idiosyncratic, which has the advantage of distinguishing what are essentially traditional dramas and dramatic comedies from the faceless pack to which they otherwise belong. But the quirks are always merely window dressing: Russell isn’t an especially weird filmmaker and not one of his films, including the self-consciously oddball I Heart Huckabees, diverges far from the safety net of convention. That’s why, in a sense, 2010’s The Fighter seemed like a kind of coming-out party for Russell: It appeared at last to acknowledge a desire to deliver routine pleasures that had at least implicitly guided all of his films to date, and it did so while abandoning any pretense of art-house eccentricity. It was, rather explicitly in fact, Russell’s de facto prestige picture, a classical drama centered around three transformative performances and a vaguely inspirational story; that it went on to secure a grand total of seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture and one for Best Director, clearly validated the decision to embrace a populist approach, and one doubts that from this point forward there’s any turning back for Russell.
This contextual narrative is relevant because Silver Linings Playbook, Russell’s latest ensemble dramatic comedy, seems both the culmination of a career built around quirk and, perhaps more importantly, the next logical step forward for a director whose taste for illustrious decoration has only just been whetted. It has been precisely calibrated—with what must have been a remarkable degree of foresight and savvy—to generate maximal goodwill, and every effort has been undertaken to make each facet of its design broadly and irresistibly appealing. What it gets right on paper is immediately apparent: Casting hot-ticket stars against type as crestfallen romantics struggling to cope with mental illness provides two attractive but ostensibly vacuous mainstream celebrities (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) the enviable opportunity to prove their worth with conspicuously “revelatory” performances; meanwhile, the fundamental seriousness of their characters’ respective arcs, with Cooper hoping to control the outbursts caused by his bipolar disorder and Lawrence attempting to overcome her grief over her husband’s recent death, raise the emotional stakes considerably, elevating largely light material from rote comedy to overtly “adult” drama.
And Cooper and Lawrence, for their part, do their best to contend with the screenplay’s many contrivances, selling themselves as realistically afflicted and, on occasion, as (mostly) fully realized human beings. The couple’s protracted conversations are pretty obviously intended by design to serve as the film’s dramatic pulse, throbbing with unspoken sexual and romantic tension and coursing through with the apparently uncontrollable vitality of their exciting but vaguely dangerous instability. That the star-crossed love story at the center of the film is drawn between two characters defined by their respective mental illnesses is clearly its high-concept selling point, and insofar as it single-handedly transforms an otherwise entirely conventional screwball-comedy pairing into something at least marginally novel, if not exactly original, the setup alone qualifies as quintessential Russellian quirk in action. The brand of safe, marketable mental illness brandished by the screenplay as a dramatically meaty “issue”—the kind that affects the well-being of attractive individuals without significantly reducing their attractiveness to us except in a superficial, “fixable” way—furnishes Silver Linings Playbook with the requisite passive liberalism of any well-meaning prestige picture, making it “about” something meaningful without it having to put in the work of actually meaning anything.
The pieces brought into play here, of course, are enormously seductive, and it’s not hard to see why so many have been taken in by the film’s wide-eyed charm. But when one stops to consider how irksomely on the nose so much of this is (its affected earnestness, its exploitative issue-mongering), the qualities which intend to most readily ingratiate the film with us begin to appear perceptibly disingenuous and false. A scene in which Cooper’s steadily recovering Pat Solitano ill-advisedly ventures to a Philadelphia Eagles game at the behest of his superstitious father is illuminating: When a group of casually racist football fans incite a spontaneous brawl in the stadium parking lot, Solitano’s violent outburst and subsequent arrest confirm that the band of fighters appear only as a function of a hackneyed script, their presence (and, furthermore, the trip to the game itself) reduced in an instant to simplistic icons needed to get the plot from point A to point B.
This kind of lazy writing characterizes Silver Linings Playbook, which shoehorns one contrivance after another into a narrative lacking any sense of organic movement or rhythm. Words and actions and even entire characters at the periphery of the story are motivated solely by a desire to keep things moving forward. Its machinations are ever apparent, lifted in most cases from, ahem, the Generic Hollywood Rom-Com Playbook: lies are told and then dramatically revealed, fights are had and then hurriedly resolved, and the climax of the film, remarkably, hinges on a ridiculous bet made for no reason other than to add a modicum of tension to an event in which we’d otherwise not be invested. Chris Tucker shows up as the lead’s token black friend and, sure enough, he teaches the white folks to dance with soul (incredibly, the actual word he uses in that context). Even a one-dimensional police officer—apparently the only one in Philadelphia—instantly appears whenever and wherever the script’s whim’s dictate, always conveniently on duty and in uniform.
That all of this is meant to not only be perfectly credible, but also somehow compelling makes it, in short, the work of a sloppy filmmaker. But as always with Russell, the faults are merely swept under the all-encompassing rug of quirk—a calculated effort to pass off a mundane dramatic comedy as something more idiosyncratic and strange than it really is. That’s why serious mental-health issues are reduced to boxes to be checked off on the screenplay’s journey to the expected resolution; the fact that real-life mental illness is significantly more serious and debilitating than a wacky character trait conquered by wherewithal and good vibrations is irrelevant to a film that couldn’t care less about the particulars of reality. A serious-minded worldview and a nuanced engagement with complicated issues doesn’t win you Oscars; a touching late-period Robert De Niro performance and an underlying message of hope, on the other hand, very likely do.