Here’s a question to ponder: Why are most contemporary romantic comedies so godawful? Some obvious culprits come to mind—terrible screenwriting, the filmmaking-by-committee curse, the frequent and regrettable presence of Gerard Butler—but I think the answer lies in our increasingly shallow definition of the genre. Classic romantic comedies such as The Apartment and It Happened One Night weren’t just funny stories about hookups; they evinced a deeply romantic worldview that is increasingly rare in the cynical pandering that today’s audiences must endure.
And that, ultimately, is the thing that makes Silver Linings Playbook such an unqualified success. It’s an incredibly funny story about two people hooking up, but more than that, it’s a story about the self-fulfilling determination for a happy ending, even for the most damaged among us.
Bradley Cooper, best known for The Hangover and that sexy People magazine cover, stars as Pat Solitano, a bipolar man who’s just been released from a Pennsylvania loony bin where he served eight months for nearly beating his wife’s lover to death. In spite of his violent past, Pat is relentlessly positive and determined to reinvent himself and win back his wife, which will be tough to do since she won’t drop the restraining order against him. Pat is being watched closely by the police, so his only chance to communicate with his estranged wife is to smuggle a letter to her via Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who might be even more messed up than Pat. Tiffany agrees to help him, but on one condition: He must be her partner in an upcoming ballroom dancing competition.
Look, I know what you’re thinking. But thanks to outstanding performances, a script that is gut-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny in equal parts (and sometimes in the same scene), and inspired direction by David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter), it all works, and it works astonishingly well. While so many romantic comedies are paper thin, Russell, who adapted Matthew Quick’s novel for the screen, sometimes struggles to fit everything in. There are subplots aplenty, the most important of which concerns Pat’s father (Robert De Niro), a bookie with OCD whose obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles will eventually figure into the lunacy of Playbook’s third act.
Cooper’s performance is Oscar-worthy—yes, I know, Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln, but I’ll be pulling for the guy from The A-Team when the statues are handed out—yet it’s Lawrence who walks off with Playbook tucked under her arm. It’s certainly no surprise, given her performance in Winter’s Bone, but her turn here as Pat’s volatile, eventual love interest might just be the best of the year. Like Pat, Tiffany is unpredictable and prone to outbursts; the scenes between them are fun to watch and sometimes nerve-wracking, often turning on a dime. Russell expertly orchestrates their budding relationship, striking just the right balance between tenderness and antagonism.
There’s a very different type of tension at work between Cooper and De Niro, who gives his best performance in years. (Jackie Weaver also holds her own as Pat’s eternally upbeat mother.) We eventually come to realize that Pat’s father is just as disturbed as he is. It’s easy to see why Pat ended up in a mental institution; we only wonder why he wasn’t put there sooner. But while the Solitano household is a repository of tics and disorders that occasionally boil over in fits of violence, Playbook never becomes a freak show and, more importantly, never condescends.
In the final act, Russell ditches some of the story’s wit and blue-collar grit in favor of a more traditional Hollywood narrative, but by then we’re so invested in the characters that we hardly notice, and certainly don’t mind.
Playbook is a rare example of a romantic comedy that is both genuinely romantic in the traditional sense of the word and very, very funny. It’s sweet but never saccharine, and never panders to audience expectations. It’s not always easy to watch—some scenes are just heartbreaking, and its depictions of mental illness are painfully honest—but those things make the story’s often-referenced silver linings shine even brighter. No matter how deep your mistrust of modern romantic comedies might be, you really should give this one a try.