In Matthew Quick’s sensitive novel Silver Linings Playbook, the Solitano family – moody paterfamilias Pat Sr., peacekeeping mother Dolores, and son Pat Jr., recently released from a mental institution for reasons yet to be discovered – live in an Eagles-obsessed Philly suburb in South Jersey. David O. Russell has both adapted and directed the movie version of Quick’s book, which results in a scattershot translation lacking in many of the details that grounded the original story. That the Solitano household now exists in an unspecified Pennsylvania town is just the tip of the iceberg in how Silver, a piercing look into the mind of the mentally ill, has morphed into a neutered, loosy-goosey comedy without claws.
The biggest nail trimmer to the story is that Russell has dialed down the instability of Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), who narrated the book, and was an unreliable narrator at that. Russell shows his hand early on, explaining that Pat Jr. has been institutionalized after nearly killing the man with whom his teacher wife (Bree Bea) had been having an affair. In the book, this was a secret kept not just from the reader but repressed by Pat Jr. from himself. Pat Jr.’s world should be cloudy, and his house should maintain a sense of danger. But the approval of his father (Robert De Niro, strictly limited to a puppy dog portrayal) is a mere teddy bear, a superstitious ne’er-do-well who buffets his unemployment with a small book-making operation offset by football bets with his friends, and worried mother (a terrific Jacki Weaver, shamelessly chewing on what should have been a far meatier role) seem to hold little import on Pat Jr.
It’s easy enough to see what Russell is aiming for here. Through clipped editing and a series of rushed zoom shots, Russell denudes the story of pathos in favor of barbed humor and achieves a sense of the frenzy in the lives of the Solitanos; these are lower-middle class people all finding their own, potentially injurious ways to reclaim control in any way they can. And they’re not alone. Pat Jr. meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the sister of his best friend’s wife (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles play the couple). Tiffany is a deeply wounded bird – widowed young and fired from her job for having sex with a dozen of her officemates, she knows a world of hurt from which Silver largely shies away. She and Pat Jr., however, make an odd match, albeit one on even footing. A bonding conversation about anti-depressants actually makes them look like not just the sanest people in the room, but the most believable. (Russell’s film works best when his characters are at their most matter-of-fact.)
And that’s part of the problem. Silver paints these two as crazy like a fox, instead of just plain crazy, able to look at the world in ways more rational than the supposedly “normal” people around them. It cheapens the notion that they are in fact, suffering, in favor of an inevitable pairing of Tiffany and Pat Jr., who forge a push-me-pull-you bond dominated by Lawrence’s arch delivery and Cassandra-like ability to know everything. How, for example, does she know to show up at the Solitano household right as Pat and his friends have returned from an Eagles game? How, too, does she know he has been in a fight? Or, for that matter, exactly when the weight-loss obsessed Pat will be jogging by her house on his daily runs? (Russell’s script is sloppy in other areas, too: Pat’s older brother, Jake (Shea Whigham), appears out of nowhere and spits out his life story in a sloppy attempt at exposition; the movie never explains why Pat wears an Eagles jersey to a posh dinner or why he oddly opts to order Raisin Bran when out with Tiffany).
Cooper has difficulty delineating Pat Jr.’s sharper edges. He seems to observe everything at face value, only to have caught on to things under the surface without telegraphing just how. It’s Lawrence’s wounded woman that really holds the film upright. About two-thirds of the way through the movie Silver basically shifts from Pat’s story to Tiffany’s. Russell’s adaptation distances us further from Pat’s head and closer to Tiffany’s heart, a cheat, but an alchemical one. It’s an overly tidy way of looking at two damaged souls trying to find their way in a world full of dangers, and it’s Lawrence’s well-tuned blend of volatility and aching that their connection works at all.
Russell’s choice to mine humor from mental illness isn’t objectionable, it’s that the result of his methods remain undercooked. Eventually, Silver builds up to a climax at a local dance contest, where Pat and Tiffany strive for just a middling score. Like the film’s very own leads, Silver, too, seems perfectly satisfied just aiming for the middle.