I actually reviewed Silver Linings Playbook back in November for the 'three points' section of our Americarnage podcast (that's Americarnage.co.uk, or via Itunes), but because I was also talking about Elliott Carter's death, the discussion was edited out. Since then, the film won the BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, which surprised me because in Britain the 'Playbook' part of the title of the film was virtually disappeared, and the football elements usually put British audiences, and critics, off. But when I sat down to write about the film, I found myself thinking first about the appeal David O Russell, and the odd fact that in the past 18 years, he done only six feature films.
Spanking The Monkey could almost be the quintessential independent first picture; I remember it blowing me away at the London Film Festival, primarily because of the way it managed to approach a taboo subject, and some sensitive relations, with both sensitivity and humour. And I was so impressed with Alberta Watson's performance, and have since watched her nail many parts, but not the big-ticket one that she deserved.
Spanking The Monkey foreshadowed the Russell who specialises in off-beat relationships, which is what Silver Linings is all about, though its characters aren't as willfully offbeat as those in other comedies he wrote and directed, like Flirting With Disaster (of which more shortly) or I Heart Huckabees. On the serious side, Russell also made Three Kings, still the best movie anyone's done about the American 'conquest' of the Middle East, even though it was made before the last two invasions, and Kathryn Bigelow's essays into them. Three Kings was, like Silver Linings, adapted from other sources, while The Fighter, which got Russell his first Oscar nomination for best director, was his only film where he doesn't have a writing credit. It also got Melissa Leo, an underappreciated New York actress right out of the Alberta Watson template, another much-deserved Oscar (though more deserved for Frozen River!)
A cynic might think Silver Linings is a combination of the two: the offbeat comedy which Russell creates himself, and a sporting subplot and metaphor to make it more interesting on the mainstream level. But I found that, despite enjoying the film for the most part, my cynicism hit a mother lode of Silver Linings.
What's new and different is Jennifer Lawrence, although again, as a widow and a 'recovering sex addict' her character Tiffany is given faults too good to be true, from the film-maker's point of view. But Lawrence does an amazing job of projecting her ultimate vulnerability—I rather doubt she gets the Oscar this year, but I wouldn't complain if she did, since she so richly deserved one for Winter's Bone. She gets the best lines, of course, and her letter to Pat is corny but may be the best moment of the film (apart from any moments with Jacki Weaver, as Cooper's mother and DeNiro's wife, enduring them). In fact the contrasting marriages; Pat's best friend is married to Tiffany's sister; she dominates him, and they live an upwardly-mobile life that's killing him to maintain. It's a contrast to Pat's parents (Tiffany's parents barely register) and everyone else in the lower-middle class neighbourhood they live in, but it's a sharper contrast to our kooky couple...at least until the end.
But what really doesn't work is the integration of the football, which is sloppy—I complained on Americarnage about DeNiro making the show's big bet on a game whose point spread would not have been fixed at the time, and you could notice the anachronistic Eagles' jerseys in the crowd-- but what was in there for a gratuitious laugh was the whole Indian Eagles fans and the fight—since one of them is Pat's therapist, you'd think his fighting at the stadium would make more of a point toward the story, but it basically just in there for a cheap ethnic laugh. Too bad they weren't playing the Redskins.
And what is especially cynical of me is thinking that the whole 'Dancing With The Stars' subplot is redolent of Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, you say, but this is what America does, pattern their lives and live their hopes to the incessant beat of so-called 'reality' television, but to me this is simply something up to date and popular on which Russell could hitch the basic scenario of Flirting With Disaster: the love triangle between the kooky guy (Ben Stiller, on whom Cooper is an improvement), the wife who doesn't care (Patricia Arquette) and the kooky woman to whom the kooky guy is attracted (Tea Leoni). There it was a quest for his parents, here it is a quest to get his job and wife back, even though the latter doesn't want him.
You can see where the novel might have appealed to Russell, and beneath the triangle he recognised were the extra plotlines, the rehab requirements, the dancing competition, and most of all the football. But really they don't go much of anywhere, especially the football, which is laden with potential metaphors for this story which went untapped. Similarly, the dancing, in the end, becomes its own payoff and telegraphs its own ending.
As I said, Silver Linings Playbook is entertaining enough; it simply does carry the weight of its own storyline to any sort of 'best picture' degree. Which is why I find it surprising he's been nominated for best director because his direction is completely in service to the screenplay, and the set-pieces are very mundane. I think that's deliberate, because as I say, I think Russell's most interested in his triangle, and everything else is just a series of devices to get him to the payoff. Besides, Flirting With Disaster II isn't a very catchy title.