Figures it would take David O. Russell to come up with one of my favorite rom-coms of 2012. I’m not ashamed to admit that rom-coms are maybe my favorite movie genre, even though the genre is, as a rule, a pitiful one. Good rom-coms come along once in a blue moon and the bad ones are not only plentiful but painful. In fact, the last really good one I remember is last year’s Bridesmaids, which wasn’t even technically a rom-com, but did have as one of its many virtues a very believable and sweet love story between the Kristen Wiig character and the nice Irish cop.
Russell’s genre is family wackadoodle, which (with the notable of Three Kings) he’s explored in every major film project he’s written/directed: Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, and now the new Silver Linings Playbook. The wacky family in Playbook are the Solitanos of Philadelphia: Pat, Sr. (Robert De Niro), an extremely superstitious and OCD Philadelphia Eagles fan who’s been barred from Eagles stadium for life for brawling with supporters of opposing teams.
His bipolar son, Pat, Jr., who hasn’t fallen far from the tree, lost his wife and job as a substitute history teacher after a violent jealous fugue attack on her lover, and has just been released from serving a court-mandated term in a psychiatric facility. He’s played by Bradley Cooper, not a bad fit considering Cooper was born in Philadelphia, is half Italian in heritage, and has those crazy-looking beady blue eyes.
Pat, Jr. takes up residence in his parents’ attic, alongside boxes of Christmas ornaments and other dusty storage, and, with the deluded goal of winning back his wife, begins a campaign of self-improvement that mostly involves jogging around the neighborhood (wearing a garbage bag) to lose weight and reading the books on the syllabus of the high school English classes she teaches.
Then he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young, intense, spectacularly nymphomaniac policeman’s widow who’s possibly even more troubled than he is. I know. On paper it sounds like a mess. Honestly, none of this should work. I haven’t even mentioned the broadly painted working class milieu that’s played for cheap laughs (count how many times Mrs. Solitano mentions her “crabby snacks and homemades”). Close to 99% of the time it’s a big mistake, not to mention tiresome, to try to make comedy, or even drama, out of mental illness.
But this is David O. Russell. If the reports of him demeaning actors on set (and the famous YouTube clip of him screaming at Lily Tomlin during the filming of Huckabees) are any indication, he writes about crazy because he knows crazy extremely well. Fortunately, the man can sell crazy too. What’s more, he can write, and the dialogue in Playbook is sharp, funny and very real.
But most of all this works because Cooper and Lawrence are terrific, and the chemistry between them is as good as anything in a 1940s slapstick. (Since you don’t know me, I’ll tell you that that praise is as high as it gets.) They are so good they even sell the cheesy dance montage near the end, and make me cheer for them every step till the exhilaratingly romantic ending. There’s a lot near the end that doesn’t make sense (including a therapist-patient relationship that gets troublingly muddled), but by that time we’re so invested in the outcome that nothing else matters.
Australian actress Jacki Weaver, who looks and sounds remarkably like Sally Struthers, may as well be All in the Family’s Gloria at age 60, a woman left to bob and swirl in the wreckage of her husband’s stormy and frequent melées. Chris Tucker is so good he resets the screen’s energy every time he appears. He is effortlessly talented and it’s a crying shame that he’s so seldom seen.