Romantic comedies are at their best when you find yourself genuinely rooting for both of the romantic leads to somehow figure things out because, well, both of them are better together. Sometime circa post-Top Gun Meg Ryan, the movie industry as a whole seemed to forget this fact, hypnotized by the potential dollar signs that endless reimaginations of the neurotic-Type-A-woman-commitment-phobic-man pairing might bring.
Put another way: yes, I blame the success of When Harry Met Sally for every 27 Dresses and Made of Honor that has been foisted on the moviegoing public in the two decades since it was released, which is plenty ironic because, really, what makes that movie so great isn't the romanticization of a Felix Ungar-Oscar Madison relationship. It's that you want Harry and Sally just figure it out already because, well, they're both so likable, even with all their neuroses, that at a certain point it's excruciating as a viewer to watch them be apart.
Mercifully, and more than a little bit awkwardly, Silver Linings Playbook resurrects the latter dynamic with heartwarming success. It does so in the veneer of a romantic comedy, though if we're striving for accuracy, I'd prefer to call it a romantic dramedy, because when you aren't laughing there's some awfully heavy stuff to digest.
All that weight comes from Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the unhinged, emotionally disturbed/traumatized odd couple, who, yes, you're going to end up pulling for ... hard. These aren't your run-of-the-mill, social anxiety, Melvin Udall-type mental health issues. As the film begins, Pat's mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver), is filling out the paperwork to have her son released from a mental hospital in Baltimore. Pat is bipolar, and his eight-month stint in the mental hospital was court-ordered, a consequence of a vicious assault he committed against his wife Nikki's (Brea Bee) lover after discovering the pair in the act at their home.
When Pat meets Tiffany after moving back to his parents' Philadelphia home, he learns that she is still reeling from the death of her husband, a police officer. Her coping mechanism is to sleep with just about anyone and everyone with a pulse -- behavior thats cost her her job and brings a nearly endless string of predatory suitors to her parents' house.
Somehow director David O. Russell, who also co-wrote the film with Matthew Quick, manages to get laughs out of this situation. They are uneasy, dark laughs. You never really forget that both Pat and Tiffany are always teetering on the edge of a meltdown. But they are laughs all the same.
Pat is tactless -- bringing up the death of Tiffany's husband within a millisecond of meeting her; he also harbors a mostly delusional belief that he is this close to getting back together with Nikki, a belief that manifests itself in the form of an unhealthy obsession with contacting her, which would be a violation of his restraining order. Tiffany, meanwhile, uses sex, alcohol and rude behavior to repress her feelings about her husband's death. She is a slutty pistol, and this, too, is funnier than it probably should be. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention Pat's father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), at this point. He is an obsessive compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan and amateur bookmaker who believes the team's good fortune and Pat's return home are somehow linked. A guy who thinks the direction of his remote controls can impact the outcome of a football game probably isn't going to create the best home environment possible for a recently released mental patient, but even this manages to be humorous.
Always balanced precariously upon thin ice, Pat and Tiffany's relationship transforms from purely contentious to potentially mutually beneficial when he agrees to be her partner in a ballroom dance competition (in exchange she will get a letter to Nikki), thus shuttling the film toward a climax that is perhaps more tense than any romantic comedy/dramedy I have ever seen. The Eagles, Nikki, ballroom dancing judges, vodka and, of course, the romantic future of our fragile but likable pair are involved. It's a conclusion you won't soon forget, and this is one of the finest films I have seen this year.
I say that despite my misgivings about laughing at the utter non-foibles of someone with bipolar disorder and a grieving widow (if comedy is tragedy plus time, this toes the line of too soon). I say that despite the fact that it's hard to swallow the notion that Bradley Cooper is related to Robert De Niro. I say that despite the fact that De Niro's excellent performance only reminded me that he's been mailing it in for about 15 years. And I say that despite the fact that a romance between said bipolar man and said grieving widow in real life would seem like the most toxic combination you could conjure up.
Silver Linings Playbook does just about everything else right. It makes you care deeply -- almost too much -- about Pat and Tiffany, which is the whole point of making this kind of movie anyway. Russell, through clever camerawork as much as anything else, conveys Pat's wild mood swings brilliantly; there is a shaky, frenetic quality to the way the film's first act is shot, followed by a much more calm and even final two. He also turns the conventions of the modern rom-com on its head -- a breath of fresh air in a genre that has been desperate for one for at least 20 years. Pat and Tiffany, unlike the leads in every Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson vehicle in the last decade, have absolutely nothing about their lives figured out, especially not each other. It is the man who is in touch with his, admittedly misguided, feelings here (too much so if anything), and it is the woman who needs to open up. There is no honeymoon phase-breakup-reconciliation-circular pan around the kiss progression.
There is almost nothing about Silver Linings Playbook that should feel familiar to rom com fans, and yet that is what it is (at least mostly). What a blessed relief.