There is a line comedies can cross over, sometimes into stupidity, sometimes into cruelty. Either way it is rarely amusing. This is the problem with “Silver Linings Playbook,” a kind of split-personality movie that cannot decide if its characters derive from real people with real problems or cartoony, cardboard figures of implausible goofiness reacting to situations that are sophomoric, tasteless and even repugnant.
The movie, written and directed by David Russell and based on a 2012 novel by Matthew Quick, is about Pat Solatano (played by Bradley Cooper), a young Philadelphia high school teacher recently released after eight months at a hospital where he was being treated for bipolar disorder. Mental problems run in the family: his father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), has lost his day job and makes ends meet betting on his beloved Eagles. He is superstitious, obsessive and volatile. Father and son yell at each other and trade blows. The apple has not fallen far from the tree, it seems. They even have parallel restraining orders: Pat Sr. is prohibited from attending Eagles games; Pat Jr. cannot visit his wife.
Needless to say, young Pat’s return home is marked by edgy and erratic behavior. Nevertheless he is determined to win back his estranged wife, Nikki, by hewing to his new motto – “Excelsior.” As he explains to his father, “I’m gonna take all this negativity and use it as fuel and I’m gonna find a silver lining, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Pat has trouble finding his silver lining, however. He rages with depressing regularity, and while the implosions are played for laughs, they are mostly fearsome and troubling, as when he flips out over the ending of a Hemingway novel, or when his shrink plays his wedding song at a therapy session, or when he cannot find his wedding video. Most of these stressors involve his wife, with whom reuniting has become an obsession. But since we do not actually meet her until the end of the movie, and then only for a few moments, her absence creates a dramatic void.
Nature and Hollywood abhor a vacuum, so the movie introduces Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who enters Pat’s life as a possible love interest and complicates his plan to reconcile with Nikki. Tiffany is Pat’s alter ego in instability. Like him she is erratic, lives with her parents, has lost her job and is unmoored without a partner. She is struggling to find a life that she can comfortably inhabit. Their parallel paths result in some funny scenes, as when the two compare meds like foodies discussing artisanal cheeses:
Pat: I used to be on Lithium and Seroquel and Abilify, but I don’t take them anymore. They make me foggy and they also make me bloated.
Tiffany: Yeah, I was on Xanax and Effexor, but I agree, I wasn’t as sharp, so I stopped.
Pat: You ever take Klonopin?
Tiffany: Klonopin? (Chuckling) Yeah.
Pat: It’s like, “What? What day is it?” How about Trazodone?
Pat: Oh, it flattens you out. I mean, you are done. It takes the light right out of your eyes.
Tiffany: God, I bet it does.
By turns acerbic and sensitive, Tiffany seems slightly further along the road to recovery than Pat. When Pat gratuitously insults her, she calls him on it in a way that suggests she has something to teach him: “There’s always gonna be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that, with all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself? Can you forgive?”
Pat’s therapist asks him the same question, and his answer suggests a poignant self-awareness: “With all my crazy sad [stuff]? What, are you nuts?”
But for every situation that manages to dramatize the plight of a couple struggling to achieve a degree of normalcy and intimacy, there are multiple scenes with inane dialogue or comic book humor, such as the high school kid who keeps asking if he can interview Pat for a school project on mental illness or the local cop who predictably shows up every time Pat freaks out and threatens to send him back to the hospital.
Ultimately the movie’s silver lining is not in its story or screenplay but in the terrific acting. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are fantastic – vibrant, hip and even moving – and the ensemble scenes with Pat’s family and friends work nicely. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars, including best actor and actress. But when a script needs heroic performances to stay afloat, something is very wrong. One should not feel good about laughing at mental illness; it is just not funny.