There’s a point early on in off-beat romcom Silver Linings Playbook where the protagonist, Pat, who has been feverishly reading Ernest Hemingway’s "A Farewell To Arms" through the night, picks up the book in a fit of rage and hurls it straight through the top floor window of his parents’ house. It lands with a slap and the tinkling of broken glass on the darkened sidewalk below. He really didn’t like that story’s ending.
As the title of the film suggests, unhappy endings as exemplified by Hemingway’s classic World War Two love story, get short shrift here. For Pat (Bradley Cooper), who we first meet in a mental health institution, finding the silver lining in everyday situations has become his way of managing his explosive mental condition. Stay positive and maintain his equilibrium, he tells himself, and eventually he’ll become the kind of man that his estranged wife Nikki will take back. Even if she has put a restraining order on him.
The course of true love never runs smooth, and as Pat returns to his parents’ house his ethos is challenged not least by people’s ongoing wariness about whether he has recovered since “the incident”. We spend the early part of the film trying to gauge Pat’s psychological state, and how to take his obsessions. You know it’s ok to laugh because there’s comedian Chris Tucker playing his fellow inmate, obsessing about his hairstyle and breaking out of the asylum (a habit of his, it turns out). But writer-director David O. Russell deliberately maintains a darkness surrounding his protagonist’s illness, which adds to the edginess of the comedy.
Bradley Cooper shows his acting dexterity, ably bridging the gap between Pat the manic stalker and Pat the romantic idealist. It also helps that there is such a strong ensemble cast, in particular his main sparring partner Jennifer Lawrence as the mysterious Tiffany, a quick-witted, sharp-tongued but psychologically troubled widow, who strikes a deal with Pat to get his wife back.
The pair’s natural tendency to short-circuit social decorum with frank speech leads to some hilarious non sequiturs and situations, like a dinner party, ice-breaker exchange about the effect of all the drugs prescribed to them.
As more light is shed on the backstory, and the film loosens up, Russell milks the mental health comedy and nicely flips the tables on characters, revealing foibles and issues among other members of the cast, whether it be Pat’s dad (Robert de Niro in good form) as obsessive-compulsive with his various gambling charms, or Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) who can’t hold an adult conversation with his wife.
However, while the movie promises to deliver something substantial on the subject of mental health, comedy and a desire for a grand climax get the upper hand. By the last stretch of the film it loses its ability to surprise with any kind of authenticity, or to say anything of note. In what feels like a total cop-out, the plot heads off to a formulaic and overly neat resolution where characters, incidents, and universe align in true Hollywood fashion.
You can see why Silver Linings Playbook won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival and is being tipped by some for Oscar greatness. It's quirky and risqué, without deviating too far from the mainstream. It's by and large an enjoyable play on the screwball comedy. However, it has the kind of ending that makes me want to throw it out of the nearest window.