The formula in a formula picture is often more alchemy than science. It’s the balance between making that ride both comfortable and unexpected. David O. Russell has thread this needle before – and quite brilliantly – with films like Three Kings and The Fighter, which took tired genres and made them interesting again. But with Silver Linings Playbook, the balance seems a little off. It’s not bad, it’s just not much more than the sum of its parts.

The Players

The Plot:

After staying in a mental institution because of his psychotic break when he found out his wife was having an affair, Pat (Cooper) goes to live with his parents (De Niro, Weaver). He’s bi-polar, and his plan is to get his wife back by being healthy, in shape, and by reading her syllabus (she’s a high school English teacher). His best friend Ronnie (Mark Ortiz) invites him to dinner at his wife’s (Stiles) behest and it turns out it’s a semi-date with Tiffany (Lawrence). She’s also been on anti-depressants because her cop husband was killed, and her initial response was to turn nympho. She harasses Pat after the dinner, and uses her semi-friendship with his wife to get him to study dance with her. And from there maybe love can blossom…

The Good:

  • Performers: David O. Russell has a great gift with actors, and it’s fair to say that Robert De Niro gives his best performance since Jackie Brown in the film. Bradley Cooper (who can come across as a little arrogant because he’s so good looking) does great work, and understands bi-polar behavior, and the cast is populated with great bits from the supporting players, but if there’s a star here it’s…
  • Jennifer Lawrence: Lawrence is such a winning on screen personality and so deftly talented that it’s easy to forgive that she’s essentially playing a variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character. Yes, they muddy the waters and her a bit so she’s not the annoyingly perky presence that brings a sad-sack writer’s surrogate back to life, but she functions in the same way. It wouldn’t work if the actress wasn’t so damn good.

The So-So:

  • Agreeable Bullsh–: There’s nothing wrong with this movie, per se. The question is whether the viewer sees it as a film about mentally unbalanced people, and finding ways to live with a disorder, and about acceptance and change, or if they view it as a picture that uses those things to tell a very familiar love story and one that uses disorder as a way to complicate a story that’s resolution is obvious from the poster. There are just enough details and touches to make it better than the standard rom-com of decades past, but the dark edges feel sanded down, though perhaps other viewers will be more affected or disturbed by the film’s biggest scene of violent outbreak. I got something satisfying enough, but I kept wanting more.

Overall:

To continue to make movies in this industry, David O. Russell has targeted his projects – it seems – based on the ability to win awards. And this is a fine Oscar thoroughbred through and through, with likeable actors playing distraught characters that showcase the fact that they are not just pretty and can actually go to somewhat darker places. But where The Fighter found some interesting ways to make a redemption story slightly stranger and more interesting than it should have been, this feels way more down the middle, and it’s distressing to see one of cinema’s brightest and original talents settling into prestige pictures. Like Alexander Payne, what made them both interesting to start with seems to be receding in favor of middlebrow sensibilities.

The Rating: 7/10

Silver Linings Playbook opens in limited theaters November 16, with the film platforming out over the next couple of weeks.

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