“Two damaged, anti-social people find each other and fall in love” is not exactly an under-utilized premise for movies. The genre is actually pretty extensive, so much so that it would not be entirely inappropriate to wonder how David O. Russell’s new Silver Linings Playbook can even justify its existence, as well as what the hell is up with that title.
In fact, you would have been perfectly within your rights to wonder how Jeremiah Chechik’s Benny & Joon could have justified its existence way back in 1993, as well as who the hell was Jeremiah Chechik and what ever happened to him. But Benny & Joon was, in fact, a surprise hit in its day and set the tone for Johnny Depp’s now-extensive gallery of lovable misfits that followed, which is why it currently holds the Defending Champ trophy instead of such quasi-formidable contenders as Buffalo ’66, Lunatics: A Love Story, and The Other Sister, to name a few.
Still, it’s quite possible that one or both of these films can’t justify their existence, so we’re going to give them their best shot by turning them loose on each other. Paul Simon may not have wanted no part of that crazy love, but even he will want a part of the action in this crazy love Smackdown…
As Silver Linings Playbook opens, manic-depressive Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, sporting a beard and several scars) is just finishing up an eight-month stretch in a state mental hospital, following a violent incident involving his wife’s lover. Determined to get in top physical condition and win back his wife, he moves back in with his sweet, anxious mother (Jacki Weaver) and OCD-suffering, die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan and compulsive-gambler father (Robert De Niro).
Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Pat’s best friend’s pouty, ill-mannered sister-in-law, who is still in a rather unstable period herself following the tragic death of her husband. She starts aggressively pursuing Pat, even though he still clearly has some anger management issues to work out (as well as a restraining order against him) because… well, because he’s played by Bradley Cooper, I guess, and she gradually wears away his resistance and his obsession with his estranged wife. All this is somehow centered on an amateur dance competition she insists they enter together.
If that sounds complicated, there’s more. Like the relentlessly dickish cop (Dash Mihok) who miraculously shows up within seconds whenever Pat loses his temper. And Pat’s strained relationship with his older brother Jake (Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Wigham, Hollywood’s new go-to guy for older brothers). There’s also Danny (Chris Tucker, after a long screen absence that I’d been taking for granted), a chatty fellow-inmate who intermittently escapes and wanders in and out of the movie for reasons unclear. And there’s the nominal villain Randy (Paul Herman), who makes a huge bet with De Niro on both an Eagles game and the dance competition, for reasons even more unclear.
In short, it’s quite a busy movie. Now you know why they need that playbook.
The Defending Champion
The title Benny & Joon actually doesn’t refer to the couple in question, but to siblings Benny Pearl (Aidan Quinn), a good-natured auto mechanic, and his younger sister, the artistic and flighty Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), who, though fairly functional most of the time, is unstable enough to require constant home supervision. Benny, at the urging of his co-worker (Oliver Platt — this movie is packed with before-they-were-familiar faces) and a vaguely sinister psychiatrist (CCH Pounder) (see?), is tempted to commit Joon to a state hospital and be free of her, but he doesn’t have the heart.
Enter Sam (Depp, in one of his first starring roles), a charmingly wacky houseguest whom the two get stuck with after Joon loses a big poker hand (it’s complicated). Sam is every girl’s dream: A consummate gentleman in Buster Keaton clothes who can perfectly mimic old silent movie routines whenever you need cheering up, barely says a word, cleans the house, and looks like a young Johnny Depp.
Naturally, Joon and Sam gradually fall for each other, keeping the relationship secret from the over-protective Benny, who is meanwhile clumsily romancing a sweet waitress (Julianne Moore) (SEE?) who, by truly astonishing (read: ridiculous) coincidence, previously starred in a schlocky horror movie that Sam has practically memorized. William H. Macy also shows up briefly as a friend of Benny’s, and, I assume, to assure Julianne Moore that some day, they’ll be working together again, in much better movies than this one.
Even the most familiar material can be made to feel fresh and distinct in the right hands, as indie maverick writer-director David O. Russell proved beyond measure in terrific previous efforts like The Fighter (2010) and Three Kings (1999). Russell has had an odd, jagged career trajectory that hit rock-bottom with the barely watchable, slapstick, philosophical satire I Heart Huckabees (2004), but The Fighter was a rousing yarn that made him an Oscar darling and restored some of his clout. Lightning doesn’t quite strike twice with the uneven and overly chaotic Silver Linings Playbook, but once again, his jazzy, improvisatory rhythm and genuinely offbeat sense of humor manage to shine through this fairly conventional, studio-friendly material. Unlike most Hollywood products, particularly of the rom-com variety, this one has a distinct voice.
One could almost consider it a direct rebuke of the likes of Benny & Joon, as generic and soulless a piece of work imaginable. Director Chechik, who had previously scored a surprise hit with Christmas Vacation (1989) but would eventually land in movie jail after helming the legendarily awful (and awfully expensive) The Avengers (2004), does the script no favors beyond cramming it full of terrific actors who deserve better. That the movie found an audience at all is largely due to Depp, who was just starting to transition from TV heartthrob to the big screen’s sultriest oddball, and he acquits himself quite well with very little dialogue and a couple of charming scenes of Chaplinesque homage.
The real problem is the script by Barry Berman (with story help from Lesley McNeil), which never met an obvious note it didn’t like. One of the very first lines, delivered by Macy to Quinn, for no discernible reason: “What is it to really need someone, you know?” At the risk of putting too fine a point on it: Barf. And it’s only downhill from there, with Joon’s mental illness being portrayed largely as an endearing eccentricity with the occasional tantrum mixed in, and apparently needing only the love of a fellow goofball like Depp to cure it.
Silver Linings, to its credit, refuses to cute-ify the illnesses it’s portraying; Cooper’s and Lawrence’s pains are real, and solutions to them don’t come easy. To be clear: Russell’s script (adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel) is not without its own flaws, with scene after scene of Cooper (rising to the challenge of his most complex role to date) losing his temper, particularly upon hearing Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” (though really, who could blame him there?). Throw in the standard phoned-in De Niro tough-dad-with-a-heart performance, the insufferable Tucker, and a whole lot of expository, on-the-nose dialogue, and you have a genuinely patience-testing first half.
But then Lawrence’s character starts to dominate the story, and gradually, the movie finds its groove. The ever-impressive Lawrence somehow manages to make her frequently obnoxious and ferocious character sympathetic, vulnerable and oddly sexy, and she and Cooper, despite a fifteen-year age difference, are well-matched. Their scenes together, whether bickering while sharing a bowl of Raisin Bran on a dinner date or working on their amateurish but adorable dance routine, are terrific and go a long way toward making up for the film’s many drawbacks.
Silver Linings Playbook is, when all is said and done, a bit of a mess, with too many characters, subplots and contrivances, an overly corny ending, and several overlong, tedious family argument scenes, but its strongest assets -– its lead performances and Russell’s distinct voice and offbeat style -– are quite strong indeed. Give me its uneven but heartfelt sloppiness over the sappy, impersonal triteness of Benny & Joon any day. Silver Linings has perhaps too much to say, but B&J has nothing to say at all, beyond “Check out Johnny Depp doing Chaplin’s Gold Rush routine! Ain’t it cute?” Which it is. But not cute enough. Winner: Silver Linings Playbook.