What do you do when your entire world spectacularly, and comprehensively, falls apart?
That’s the question that Silver Linings Playbook, a muscular romantic comedy and drama hybrid by David O. Russell, and based on the book by Matthew Quick, dares to pose and to be honest, for much of its running time, the answers aren’t pretty (although their effect is leavened by the judicious use of black humour, the hilarious in-and-out appearances of Chris Tucker who plays Pat’s fellow patient, Danny, and an ending that is happy without being too saccharine).
While it isn’t as hard hitting as an unsentimental European production of the same material would likely be, it nevertheless doesn’t shirk from showing the full effects of someone’s world imploding and the collateral damage, to borrow an American military euphemism, this causes to friends and family watching helplessly from the sidelines.
And nor does it shy away from being brutally honest about the long road back to recovery for the victims who often take what feels like a few hundred steps back back for every faltering foot forward.
The film picks up eight months after Pat Solitano Jr (Bradley Cooper) has been committed to a mental institution in Baltimore, far away from his working class family in Philadelphia, for almost beating his wife’s lover to death after discovering them naked in the shower together when he returns early one day from his job teaching history at the local high school.
He only escapes jail time for the assault because the traumatic incident leads to diagnosis of his bipolar disorder, a condition which he despises with a passion but which is also accepted by him, when so much else in his life isn’t, as part of his current reality (though he rejects the need for meds to help him deal with it, at least initially).
Using his time in the mental health facility gainfully, he loses weight, reads voraciously and ingests all the positive reinforcement he can – his mantra is the Latin word “Excelsior” which means “ever upward” – determined to win back his estranged wife Nikki after their “apart time” and get his life back from out of the abyss into which it has tumbled.
But it soon becomes obvious upon his release, which is engineered by his concerned mother Dolores (Australia’s own Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver) without telling his loving if distant father Pat Sr (Robert De Niro, in one of his most impressive recent performances), that his ambitions for the future will quickly come into direct conflict with the realities of life back in his hometown, and that no amount of wishful thinking will restore his terminally damaged marriage.
At least, not any time soon.
Convinced though that reconciliation with Nikki, who has a restraining order against him, is only a matter of time, he commits himself to a fervent program of jogging, in a fetching black garbage bag no less, and reading the entire literature syllabus his wife teaches (she had accused him of not showing an interest in what she did for a living, which he admits was true) to win her back.
It’s while he’s out jogging one day that he encounters an old friend Ronnie (Johnny Ortiz), who unlike others Pat comes across is not fazed by his recent unfortunate history, even if he is a little nervous seeing him for the first time since the incident, and invites him to dinner ostensibly at the behest of his wife Veronica (Julia Styles).
It’s an invitation Pat accepts reluctantly, worried that he is not ready yet for dinner with anyone, let alone with Veronica who is a close friend of Nikki and could be a conduit to some form of reconciliation with his wife.
But the dinner proves pivotal in a whole other way when Pat meet the unpredictable Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Veronica’s sister, who is still in mourning for her recently deceased husband Tommy, and every bit as socially awkward as Pat.
The spark between them is unmistakable but it’s not smooth sailing by any means for the pair as they approach the budding relationship from completely different angles and for wildly different reasons.
Pat, of course, sees Tiffany, who he keeps mysteriously bumping into on his daily jogs, as simply a means to an end, a way to indirectly reach out to Nikki.
Tiffany, on the other hand, who co-opts Pat as a dancing partner for a major competition she wants to enter as payment for getting a letter to Nikki, is looking for a way to redeem herself after some highly unorthodox activities at work got her fired from her job and resulted in an unsavoury reputation she is eager to be done with.
It’s no surprise that, despite the undeniable attraction, they have some difficulty navigating their way to some sort of workable relationship since Pat is in massive denial, convinced he can reclaim his old life by dint of positive belief and sheer tenacity, while Tiffany is firmly convinced that life is bleak and raw and quite possibly unsalvageable.
Thus two divergent world views collide in a welter of awkward moments, fiery exchanges, humorous insights and blistering honesty since neither person, scarred by life as they are, has time for useless social niceties that simply serve to hide the truth or delay its eventual reveal, and tells it exactly like it is.
But this proves cathartic for both of them and as they slowly work through their own issues, and those that may separate them, the people around them slowly begin to heal too and that far off place of recovery begins to look a whole lot more attainable.
It is no easy ride however, and even though the ending is perhaps a little too Hollywood, you don’t begrudge these two people a single moment of happiness since the journey to that point has been so raw and unvarnished, and wonderfully, satisfyingly real.