David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)

Academy Award Wins: Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)

The long, languishing period between 2004’s I HEART HUCKABEES and 2010’s THE FIGHTER yielded little in the way of creative output from director David O. Russell– NAILED’s failed shoot in 2008 notwithstanding.  As such, he had ample time to develop a variety of projects, and the sudden success of THE FIGHTER would enable the making of these other projects in quick succession– one of which was an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook”.  He had become involved with the project via Sydney Pollack after the Weinstein Company procured the galleys (1), its heartfelt exploration of mental health connecting with Russell thanks to his own son’s struggle with OCD and bipolar disorder (2).  Initially conceiving of the film as a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel (2), he found the intended balance of drama, comedy, and romance elusive, generating over twenty-five drafts in five years.  At another point, Russell’s frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg became attached to the project, only to drop out before the film gathered enough momentum to finally come together.

Shot at breakneck pace over a period of just thirty-three days, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK continues Russell’s re-embrace of scrappy indie filmmaking methods as a way to better facilitate his creative inspiration.  Set in a blue-collar suburb outside of Philadelphia, the story concerns a burnt-out ex-teacher named Pat (Bradley Cooper), who has just emerged from an eight-month stint in a psychiatric hospital after the discovery of his wife’s infidelity caused him to suffer a mental breakdown.  Cooper delivers a breakout performance here, bringing subtle nuance to what could otherwise be a broad caricature of an anxious man suffering from bipolar disorder and a crippling inability to get over his unfaithful ex-wife.  Russell’s casting of Cooper is inspired, unearthing the simmering anger behind his previous bit roles in other comedies and harnessing it to empower Cooper with the necessary conviction to assert himself as a viable lead and secure his first Oscar nomination.  Pat’s ill-advised attempts to win his wife back brings a fresh, invigorating force into his life– a widow and amateur dancer named Tiffany.  Played by Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-winning performance, Tiffany is quite the unconventional romantic love interest: a cynical and bracingly honest young woman with poor social skills who is frequently clad in black as an externalization of her grief.  Despite her personal infatuation with Pat, she agrees to help him re-establish contact with his ex-wife, but only on one condition: he must be her partner for a big upcoming dance contest– the practicing for which Pat will eventually come to realize that it is Tiffany,  not his ex-wife, who holds the key to his existential salvation.  SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK marks the beginning of Lawrence and Russell’s intimate creative partnership, with the actress going on to star in his two subsequent films and proclaiming at the 2016 Golden Globes that she wished to be buried alongside her beloved director (a statement that his real partner, Holly Davis, was surely thrilled to hear).  Lawrence is undoubtedly the life force of the film, and her Oscar recognition is well-deserved (as it was for her other co-nominees), but a small point of contention remains about her casting; only 21 years old during the time of filming, Lawrence is conceivably too young to play a character supposedly in her mid-30’s.  However, her inherent physicality as a person projects a wisdom well beyond her years, which Russell uses to his advantage here.  While it works in this particular case, it would establish a tendency to stretch the bounds of credulity by casting her in roles far above her age bracket– a strategy which most recently showed its inherent flaws with her headlining performance in 2015’s JOY (3).  

Russell surrounds his two leads with an eclectic and diverse supporting cast, all of whom effortlessly slip into a blue-collar Philly brogue while reinforcing his reputation as a director who delivers major awards heat for his performers.  Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro play Pat’s supportive but hovering parents, with DeNiro in particular being a crucial foil to Cooper and Lawrence’s burgeoning romance.  An old-fashioned “tough love” kind of guy, Pat Sr. is an Eagles super fan with undiagnosed OCD tendencies. Both he and Weaver would also be honored with Supporting Actor/Actress Oscar nominations, making SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK the first film since 1981’s REDS to be honored in all four acting categories.  The nomination would be especially meaningful for DeNiro, reminding us why he’s such a silver screen legend after a long string of forgettable payday performances in lousy films.  Russell’s casting of Martin Scorsese’s former muse brings him ever closer to the aesthetic character of his key influence, making for a fruitful collaboration that, like Lawrence, would also be reprised across his subsequent two features.  Chris Tucker makes one of his extremely rare film appearances as Danny, Pat’s motormouth buddy and fellow patient from the psychiatric hospital.  Shea Whigham continues to deliver his string of consistently excellent and understated performances with his role as Pat’s preppy and put-together older brother, Jake.  Finally, there’s the interesting coupling of Jon Ortiz and Julia Stiles as Ronnie and Veronica, respectively– Ronnie being Pat’s buddy who can’t help but be upbeat even while the suffering weight of domesticity is causing him to fray at the edges, and Veronica being Tiffany’s older sister and a veritable ice queen with little else but thinly-veiled contempt for her husband’s best friend.  

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SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK reprises the handheld immediacy of THE FIGHTER’s visual aesthetic, this time utilizing the talents of DP Masanobu Takayanagi to create something of a master-class in subdued, but impeccable, cinematography.  Takayanagi and Russell render the grainy 2.35:1 35mm film frame with muted autumnal colors and naturalistic light.  The camera mainly alternates between the organic chaos of handheld photography and the fluid observationalism of the Steadicam, always keeping its eyeline on the same level as the actors in order to create a visceral and immersive experience for the audience.  Russell’s frequent production designer Judy Becker effortlessly conveys the authentic flavor of blue-collar Philadelphia, from the sleepy residential communities to the rowdy tailgate parties just outside Lincoln Financial Field.  In a rare departure from his residency in director Tim Burton’s post-production pipeline, composer Danny Elfman delivers an understated but complementary score that captures the film’s melancholic, bittersweet character.  His cues pepper the wider musical landscape of licensed needle-drops from a wide range of acts like The White Stripes, Johnny Cash, and Dave Brubeck– the most prominent of which is Stevie Wonder, who’s feel-good love ballad “My Cherie Amour” is employed to glorious effect as a trigger for Cooper’s emotional meltdowns.

Russell’s sense of humor is unique amongst other filmmakers in that he tends to ferret out nuggets of unlikely comedy from unexpected situations.  Just as SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994) or FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996) found absurdity within the perils of incest and adoption, respectively, so too does SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK explore the topic of mental health through humor without coming across as tone-deaf or insensitive to those who suffer from it.  It’s an extremely fine line to walk, one in which Russell walks with the effortless empathy of someone with a personal connection to the material.  It also helps that the story is well within his wheelhouse, allowing him to exercise his well-developed intellectual muscles via signature themes like identity crisis, familial conflict and the peculiar social dynamics of working-class Americans along the Eastern seaboard.  He even gets the chance to incorporate his roots in literary academia, turning a scene of Pat reading (and violently reacting to) an Ernest Hemingway novel into a hilarious character bit.  

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If THE FIGHTER announced Russell as a force to be reckoned with on the awards circuit, then the similarly-warm reception to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK two years later cemented it.  After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the film went on to strong box office returns and widespread critical acclaim.  For the second time in a row, Russell secured a nomination for himself in the Best Directing category at the Academy Awards– one of eight total nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Editing.  Lawrence may have been the only member of the company to take home gold that night, but the others could take solace in the fact they had made something of a modern classic.  The undisputed success of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK made it clear for all to see:  Russell’s comeback was officially in full swing, and he was here to stay.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Credits:

Produced by: Bruce Cohen, Donna Gigliotti, Jonathan Gordon

Written by: David O. Russell

Director of Photography: Masanobu Takayanagi

Production Designer: Judy Becker

Edited by: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Music by: Danny Elfman

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