If Frances Ha is Girls as Greta Gerwig vehicle, David O. Russell’s The Silver Linings Playbook is Mike White and Laura Dern’s Enlightened repackaged as prestige romantic comedy. Like Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) moves in with his parents straight from institutionalization following a mental breakdown and hopes, somewhat mystifyingly, to resume his job. (Playbook ups the stakes by including in Pat’s shameful “incident” the ruthless beating of his wife’s lover, also his own coworker.) Engendering fear, doubt, and support from friends and family, Pat and Amy are assigned outsiders to express intense interest in their well-being—White’s Tyler in Enlightened, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in Playbook. Unlike the TV show’s new-agey corporate underling, however, former mental patient Pat is not merely well-intentioned and fatally patronizing; his positivity prevents the slightest identification with his (or anyone else’s) sadness or capacity for violence. Or maybe he’s tactful, gentle and understanding—the movie doesn’t seem to know. And the trade-off of character integrity for audience identification extends to the fabric of Russell’s latest movie, and in retrospect, the arc of his career.
While not without their share of issues, germs of something rich and intense pepper the early scenes of Playbook. There’s Pat’s father (Robert De Niro) obsessing over a misplaced envelope with a mixture of well-placed parental concern and obsessive-compulsive mania. There’s a meet-cute in which Pat and the also mentally ill Tiffany (whose sizeable age gap from Cooper—unlike in, say, Russell’s Spanking the Monkey—passes without comment) loudly discuss medication use over a dinner party, bringing to mind the I Heart Huckabee’s Russell of clashing anti-social impulses, albeit fairly untextured this time around. And the wonderful Jacki Weaver of Animal Kingdom shows up to play Pat’s mother, but has little to do but fret over her husband and son’s excesses.
But Playbook shows its hand early by failing to make a critical distinction about Pat: whether his violent tendencies, delusions about his estranged wife and hypocritical distrust of the mentally ill are character traits or merely opportune gag setups worth extending to Tiffany, his father, and others. Early revelations of these traits are nicely offhand—note Pat’s unemphatic mention of the beating that landed him in an institution. And Pat’s repeated references to getting in shape as a panacea for his issues are casually placed, funny and ring true. But unobtrusive signs of a horribly flawed man trade off with leaden laugh lines making cutesy reference to same, all in order to usher in an aura of acceptability around the two leads. The Russell of 1996 might have been able to sell Cooper’s insistence that his episodes “barely [happen], thank God” as something besides sitcommy, but probably not have been able to complicate the reveal of Pat’s Indian therapist as a football fan as something other than vaguely offensive schtick.
Tiffany, too, has a handful of bracing character moments, and Russell even manages to ground some of her cloying speeches that Cooper ought to face the music in hysteria. But as with Pat, this hysteria is whittled down to mild distress for fear of upsetting the audience. Destigmatizing mental illness is one thing; softening it is something else. Playbook makes an unmistakable shift from problematic but worthy to negligible as soon as Tiffany incidentally catches Pat unambiguously, sincerely caring about her as a person, a ceremonial casting out of any intimations of dysfunction in their romantic potential. The psychologically nonsensical next scene, in which she gives a standard “I only give, I never take” speech, plants us firmly in Syd Field territory. Cue third-act underdog triumph echoing a slew of Sundance hits from the past 15 years, and we can all but wave goodbye to the funny, unpredictable Russell who took human beings disarmingly seriously.