Pat (Bradley Cooper), a high school teacher in Philadelphia, is finally being released from a mental hospital after eight months. He was sent there as part of a plea bargain after he discovered his wife with another man and almost beat him to death, a product of the bipolar disorder he was diagnosed with at the hospital. He’s spent these last eight months working hard to improve himself, losing weight and dealing with his condition, in order to impress and reconnect with his wife, Nikki, if only he could get her to drop the restraining order.
Silver Linings Playbook is all about mental illness, but it’s never condescending or tragic. Pat’s dealing with real life consequences of his illness, and it’s affected his entire family, but he remains largely upbeat and hopeful, looking for the silver lining. He comes home with his parents, and they struggle to find a sense of the normal in their life. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) doesn’t know how to relate to Pat, and has his own, undiagnosed illness (obvious OCD), his obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, and his unemployment to deal with, while his mother (Jacki Weaver) just wants everything to go back to the way it was.
Pat sets about trying to get in contact with Nikki (he’s not allowed to use the phone, because everyone knows he will try to call her). He runs constantly for exercise, wearing a black trash bag in order to sweat, and attempts to read all of the books on Nikki’s teaching syllabus. At a dinner with a friend, hoping to find news of Nikki, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and everything changes. Tiffany has her own set of problems, and she and Pat bond over their shared situations. Tiffany’s husband was a cop who died, and now she lives on her parents’ property, struggling to find a purpose and come to grips with her life.
Silver Linings Playbook is part romance, part comedy and part inspirational “overcoming adversity” film, all while being a big middle finger to the sorts of people who look down on those who are different. Lawrence is the film’s heart, and she makes Tiffany both defiant and insecure, trying to embrace who she is yet afraid of not finding her place in the world. As played by Lawrence, Tiffany becomes the sort of character you want to protect but know she would be pissed that you tried to interfere. It’s a performance with a lot of nuance and subtlety, and should firmly cement Lawrence’s star status.
Bradley Cooper is the real shock, though. His Pat is full of hope and quiet energy, despite being stymied at every turn. Cooper gives a sincere performance that I never would have expected given his previous work. Pat is frustrated by his illness, and determined to beat it in any way he can, but it’s Tiffany who teaches him acceptance, and together they gradually start to reform their lives and rebuild their family. David O. Russel, who directed the film and adapted the screenplay from the book by Matthew Quick, draws on his own experiences with his bipolar, OCD son.
Silver Linings Playbook can be both wickedly funny and heartbreaking, but love and hope shine through the pain and disease. Outside of the four leads, the supporting cast is also great, including Julia Stiles as Tiffany’s sister and Christ Tucker (in his first non-Rush Hour role in 15 years) as one of Pat’s fellow patients. As Pat and Tiffany grow closer, they agree to compete in a dance competition, and they strive not to win, but merely for a 5/10. Sometimes “average” is a worthy goal, and Silver Linings Playbook’s message seems to be that you can strive for normalcy in your life without sacrificing your individuality. You don’t have to be the best, but just be happy with who you are, and look for the silver lining wherever you can find it. Sometimes a 5/10 can be perfect.