Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell – USA) 122 minutes
It would be an exaggeration to call David O. Russell one of Hollywood’s major directors of our time but that is not to slight him entirely. Since his 1995 debut Spanking the Monkey he has carved out his own distinctive career, turning out oddball dramas and comedies that are as wildly different from one another as they are, in certain ways, strangely similar. Sometimes his films are very good indeed – Flirting with Disaster was a rare successful updating of the screwball comedy, among its accomplishments having a gay couple played for laughs without resorting to cliché or malice. It was also a very funny film.
After the success of The Fighter, which won Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, Russell is now an Oscar season insider. Silver Linings Playbook benefited from this largesse, sweeping eight nominations, including all four acting categories. Jennifer Lawrence picked up Best Actress at her second attempt. Though nobody in full possession of their wits should really bother their heads too much at the rationale of Academy voters, this fondness for Silver Linings Playbook leaves one perplexed. It is a film that takes the familiar elements of Russell’s work — a jaunty tone, neurotic lead characters and elaborate ensemble scenes — but gets only the worst out of them. It is a bad film, and a puzzlingly bad one.
The playbook of the title (pretty awful, if you ask me, which might have been given a better title outside the US) is the plan Pat Solitano Jr has to get back with his estranged wife after he emerges from eight months in a mental health facility. Having been committed initially for beating her lover – and mutual colleague – to a pulp, and suffering from bi-polar disorder, Pat is looking pretty damn hard for the silver lining. But Hollywood thrives on hope and Russell keeps our hero on track, even as he plagues his beleaguered parents with his erratic behaviour. He then encounters the widowed sister-in-law of a friend (Lawrence) who seems more interested in him than he is in her and who appears to have a greater handle on her own mental illness.
The opening hour of Silver Linings Playbook is one that leaves you a little uneasy, with a film about mental illness at times teetering into wacky comedy, not unlike a previous Russell effort, I Heart Huckabees. But you are willing to give it a chance, not least because the comedy is not particularly mean-spirited. The change of tack to the more formulaic terrain of romantic comedy is not in itself unforgivable; unfortunately though, the film is a mess. For a film that has gained so many plaudits for its performance, there is an awful lot of terrible acting on display here.
Russell bears a lot of the responsibility for this: many of the ensemble scenes — something he is usually quite adept at filming — are poorly staged and the actors seemingly unsure of what is expected of them. The centrepiece of awfulness is a scene at a tailgate party before a Philadelphia Eagles game, soon followed by another cacophonous shouting match back at the Solitano home. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who is the best thing in the film — possibly the only good thing — is not immune to it; too many of her scenes are pitched to a sharply over-dramatic keel. You are left with the impression of negotiating peaks and troughs and much of the film looks like it has been edited like a trailer. Perhaps Russell’s films have been like that all along but the effect has never been quite so annoying hyperactive until now — Silver Linings Playbook has the air of a manic depressive My Little Sunshine about it. That is something some people might consider a selling point but it’s hard work sitting through it.