Film critic David Denby called Silver Linings Playbook “pretty much a miscalculation from beginning to end,” while Roger Ebert claimed “it’s so good, it could almost be a terrific old classic.” In a largely positive review, MSN Movies’ Glenn Kenny articulated what has so divided opinions on the film: “Silver Linings Playbook is fun, sharp, and sometimes moving, but it’s not reinventing any kind of wheel.”
We pulled together critic Michelle Orange, film school dropout Pasha Malla, and Slate’s David Haglund to discuss whether wheels need reinventing, and if David O. Russell’s Best Picture nominee is a determined mess, or just messy, without purpose.
David Haglund is a writer and editor for Slate. Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life, an essay collection recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Pasha Malla is the author of four books and a longtime contributor to The Morning News.
David Haglund: I’m confused as to why nobody—I’m thinking not just of you two, but of every critic whose review I’ve read, having by now read several of them, confused, again and again—is talking about how totally bizarre this movie is. Perhaps that’s because it is, in certain respects, a meticulously conventional movie; it absolutely deploys “the rom-com formula.” But within those considerable constraints it gets very strange.
Pasha Malla: Yes! I agree about the weirdness; the whole thing just felt off. And I struggled, for maybe the first half-hour, with whether this was intentional, as parody, or just sloppy. But there are clues to the movie’s own knowingness: when Jennifer Lawrence’s character announces, “There, that’s a feeling,” which cut through the mania and created a proxy experience for the viewer (or at least me) of Pat’s emotional state. And the use of “I Get Misty” at the end, in that typical rom-com love declaration scene, was sly—I hate to admit this, but I did get misty, and was like, “Shit, the movie’s calling me out!”
Michelle Orange: I took a great deal of pleasure in the bizarreness, but I didn’t realize it was pleasure, exactly, until about halfway through. David O. Russell sets you out on this uncomfortable ledge, where you don’t quite know what you’re watching or how you’re supposed to feel about it. I realized watching it that I was worried for most of the first half of the movie, when the treatment of the tricky mental illness stuff feels reckless or parodying despite the seriousness of Cooper’s situation. But somehow that tension gets poured back into the movie, where it knocks around between characters as they negotiate an increasingly conventional plot. I found it exhilarating—a kind of release from expectation became a source of pleasure, even as Russell showed me myself as a viewer in the most knowing, compassionate, and entertaining way.
DH: On the one hand, Bradley Cooper’s arc is unsurprising: He comes home thinking he can get well on his own, refusing his medication, insisting he’ll get his wife back, and so on. Salvation only arrives when he admits his weaknesses, goes jogging every day, takes his meds, learns to love, etc. Except that said salvation depends upon: 1) the more or less random success of the Philadelphia Eagles in a football game that his undiagnosed OCD father (De Niro), who has a gambling problem, has bet the family’s future on and 2) the persistent lying of the love interest he chases down and declares his devotion to while “I Get Misty” gets Pasha misty. (Not me, I should maybe say.) This comes after a speech De Niro gives to Cooper about how he’s not sure exactly what love is, but he knows something good when he sees it—I may be mixing up clichés here—and so Cooper better get out there and chase down that girl. That was probably the low point of the movie for me.
PM: I have to admit, despite how resistant I was to the formula—or how resistant I thought I was—that sappy De Niro line worked on me, and so did Pat and Tiffany kissing in the street. Other things were going on for me that reached beyond the movie, and it touched a couple of nerves, but isn’t this what movies do? I mean, even when they’re being manipulative and sentimental—never mind when they draw our attention to the devices that are manipulating us—they can still sock us in the gut, or the heart, even with the cheesiest, most predictable moments imaginable.
MO: I think there are different ways to love movies. Why worry about escaping formula if as a director you can master it? That was part of what sucked me in and what I really admired, because that is fucking hard to do at this late date. It carried me away and that’s all I really need.
Even when movies are being manipulative and sentimental, they can still sock us in the gut, or the heart, even with the cheesiest, most predictable moments imaginable.
DH: But Russell must know that the whole situation at the end is a mess, right? Which would seem to be where the movie breaks from convention—except that it doesn’t: The ending is so irrefutably, exuberantly happy that it seems we’re not really supposed to think about how his dad still has a gambling problem and thinks that if his son sits a certain way in a particular chair while the Eagles play his odds will improve (and if they don’t he’ll call his son a loser, vociferously). So the whole thing seems like a total hash. But then I recall the highlight of the movie: When Jennifer Lawrence soars confidently up toward Bradley Cooper’s shoulders at the climax of their dance routine (and the movie itself), and… she doesn’t quite make it, sliding instead awkwardly down his face in her tight white dance pants and smiling all the while, while one audience (at the dance contest, within the movie) grimaces and another (in the movie theater) laughs, and the oddball duo earns a score that’s just good enough to save the family savings and get that happy ending. So then I think Russell knows exactly what he’s doing, producing a paean to messiness and makeshift, temporary solutions, and exuberant, unstable love. Or something. I enjoyed that part a lot, anyway.
PM: Russell seems most invested in the dynamics between people/actors—basically putting a bunch of people in a room to see how they bounce off each other—and maybe a conventional structure is a good way of creating scenes and an almost peripheral plot to allow De Niro and Cooper and Chris Tucker, who I thought was terrific in this, and everyone else, to play a little bit. I think about that dinner scene in Huckabees, with Wahlberg’s character and the Sudanese and the Christian family, and so many moments in Three Kings, where I felt like such a voyeur, in a really entertaining way. So maybe it’s less about hitting the marks than what happens between them.
DH: Apparently Russell was once set to cast Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel, which makes sense to me, because I think he’s trying to make exactly the sort of movie that would feature those two—except his version of it, which is a little nuttier, angrier, less comfortable, and with better performances. He also supposedly almost cast his usual muse, Mark Wahlberg, who I just re-watched in I Heart Huckabees—which is actually, I think, quite a bit like Silver Linings Playbook (and better than I remembered). Basically, Silver Linings is Huckabees + oh, I don’t know, Along Came Polly or something. (Granted, I never saw the latter.)
MO: I’m going to politely ignore David’s reckless invocation of Along Came Polly, which I have seen, I regret to say. Except to disagree with the “exactly that sort of movie” bit with regard to Vaughn and Deschanel. Let’s not pretend Russell didn’t take a big risk with Bradley Cooper, same as he did with Ben Stiller in Flirting With Disaster and Mark Wahlberg in Three Kings and Huckabees. I don’t know whether Vaughn and Deschanel were seriously considered or studio favorites or what, but I think Russell’s casting risks are a key part of his sensibility and the high-wire feeling of his movies. It’s not as simple as plugging in the usual suspects and heightening the game a bit.
DH: The Fighter, too, was sort of a genre flick (a boxing picture) with a Russell spin (a loud, nutty family), and I loved it. But I think the genre constraints served Russell less well in Silver Linings, because the conventions of romantic comedy are about precisely those emotional relationships at the center, which Russell typically leaves messy and dysfunctional, but which, in a rom-com, demand to be happily resolved.
MO: I’m glad you mentioned The Fighter, David. There and now with SLP it struck me that Russell is the increasingly rare director who is willing to get really regional. The accents, the culture, the... denim washes. So much of The Fighter’s comic mileage came from those details, I wondered what the locals/natives made of it. It’s a little less extreme here but I appreciated the effort to evoke a sense of American place. He teases but it’s not malicious. There’s something both loving and provocative in the way he makes the homegrown exotic.
It’s a rare Hollywood movie with a strong sense of place—they have global audiences to think about, so place tends to get either neutralized or reduced to inert or establishing shots of big landmarks. Think about all the American cities Toronto and Vancouver have been.
PM: Is Russell rare as a director who’s willing to get regional? Maybe in the way he caricatures regions: Because Ben Affleck has done Boston, and John Waters has certainly done Baltimore, and recently there’s been Winter’s Bone (Ozarks) and Take This Waltz (Toronto), and whatever Django Unchained was supposed to be, etc., etc.
MO: I didn’t say nobody else does it, I said it’s “increasingly rare.” And Russell isn’t afraid to be itinerant. It’s a rare Hollywood movie with a strong sense of place—they have global audiences to think about, so place tends to get either neutralized or reduced to inert or establishing shots of big landmarks. Think about all the American cities Toronto and Vancouver have been.
DH: I like that Russell has tried to revive the romantic comedy, but to do that you need to imagine why two people might be together in this rather unromantic day and age and make that feel meaningful and real (as in, e.g., Eternal Sunshine), and ultimately I felt mostly unmoved on that score by Silver Linings. Also, as Choire Sicha (who loved this movie) said at the Awl, there wasn’t as much Jacki Weaver and Julia Stiles as there should have been.
MO: The writing and pacing had a classical sharpness and screwball vibe. The fact that it wasn’t external forces thwarting the two lovers but their respective “mental health journeys” felt wry and irreverent but persuasive. Like I said I wasn’t swept away by the love story, but that didn’t bother me. I could say the same about Bringing Up Baby.
PM: Maybe that screwball vibe was what never sat right with me. Having worked for the past few years with people with mental illness, I wanted to see an honest portrayal of how difficult it can be to readjust after institutional care. Instead, I felt like Pat’s struggles were mostly played for laughs—not that I think these experiences are sacrosanct or can’t be told with humor. I just think the mental health stuff was made cartoonish, and the jokes weren’t being used to access even an emotional truth.
MO: Russell has said he has a son struggling with mental health issues, specifically bipolar disorder, and with regard to SLP he said, “I was looking for a story to tell that would make my son feel a part of the world.” Sydney Pollack had given him the Quick book with a caveat about how difficult it would be to get the tone right. Russell felt like he could if he could access the quality of a movie like Goodfellas or Raging Bull, where the tension is so outrageous it gives way to comedy. He shot each scene a bunch of different ways and says there was a much darker version of the movie available to him in the editing room. He also says he was determined not to make a movie for his son or anyone struggling with mental illness that had a dark ending.
DH: And he worked that struggle with the ending into the movie! I also hate the ending of A Farewell to Arms, by the way, but for very different reasons. Also, isn’t it weird that Cooper’s character refers to the protagonist of that book as Hemingway? That puzzled me. Anyway, I’m mostly with Pasha on the movie’s treatment of mental illness. I think Russell was going for more—there’s that great scene with Zeppelin in the background where Cooper’s character, off his meds, loses it—but he gets so careless (as with the basically comical therapist character) that he undoes, I think, some of the movie’s accomplishments on that score. Just making someone with a serious bipolar disorder the romantic hero of a pretty big movie is a fairly significant feat. And making a paean to messiness and imperfection may, very broadly speaking, be the right way to approach the subject of mental illness if you’re making a romantic comedy.
MO: But that’s a good place to stop! With David’s very own silver lining. Excelsior!