All movies are made up of ludicrous falsehoods—unbelievable characters, unrealistic plots, impossible twists of fate—and they work only when they convince you that, in spite of all the obvious silliness, something honest or vivid or emotionally accurate is going on. This is sometimes called the “willing suspension of disbelief,” but the term gets it wrong. You don’t actually need to suspend anything: You can both understand that what you’re seeing could never happen in real life and still think you’re watching something that is, in some sense, real.
I never believed that for a second watching Silver Linings Playbook, this year’s Oscar entry in the “small heartfelt sleeper” category. (Last year, the category was filled, equally unconvincingly, in my view, by George Clooney’s The Descendants.) Silver Linings Playbook features two extremely glamorous stars trying very hard to behave like pathetic Philadelphians who deserve one last chance at happiness in a film deliberately designed to look gritty and rough and unpolished by its very accomplished writer-director, David O. Russell.
Bradley Cooper, who was People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2011, plays Pat, whom we meet in a mental hospital in Baltimore, where he’s doing a stint for having nearly beaten his wife’s lover to death. The extremely likable Cooper might be capable of charming his wife’s lover nearly to death, but that’s about it; he embodies about as much danger and menace as Justin Bieber.
Pat is supposed to suffer from auditory hallucinations and a delusional hope of restoring his marriage to a woman who has a restraining order out on him. But Cooper’s stock-in-trade as a performer is his open accessibility; he moves too lightly to bear a soul in turmoil. Russell’s camera swoops in and out around the vicinity of Cooper’s face to create tension and discomfort the actor himself cannot really evoke.
Perhaps he’s not meant to evoke it, not really, because this is a sweetened-up version of bipolar disorder—one in which the crime for which he was committed is only seen in momentary flashes. The movie is, in essence, a romantic comedy, as Pat is paired up with Tiffany, the gorgeous, widowed sister of his best friend’s wife.
Tiffany is a piece of work. At one moment she’s tough-talking and unfiltered; at another she’s depressed; at another she’s nymphomaniacal; at another, she turns out to be shrewd and clever and worldly. In the final analysis, she’s not a character at all—she’s whatever Russell needs her to be at any given point. And that includes being interested in Pat, who deserves and earns no such interest. Except, of course, for the fact that Pat is really the Sexiest Man Alive, and all his craziness is just an outfit Bradley Cooper is putting on here to try to win awards.
Jennifer Lawrence, the star of The Hunger Games, stunningly beautiful and all of 22, once again proves herself one hell of an actress—she’s so good, in fact, that she occasionally comes close to making some kind of sense out of Tiffany. But what’s the use? All of a sudden, she’s tricking Pat into becoming a ballroom dancer and entering a competition with her, which then becomes the subject of a high-stakes bet on which the future of Pat’s family comes to center.
So what we have here is a gritty drama/romantic comedy/dance competition picture laced with sitcom elements. Robert De Niro is Pat’s father, who’s supposed to have some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder centering on the Philadelphia Eagles, but just seems like a nice guy who loves his boy.
The Australian actress Jacki Weaver every now and then throws out a punchline or two as Pat’s put-upon mom. Then there’s Chris Tucker, from the Rush Hour movies, playing Pat’s racially diverse buddy from the loony bin. He’s delightful, and I wonder where he’s been, and I wish he’d be in more stuff.
The point is: There aren’t three consecutive truthful seconds in Silver Linings Playbook—not in the setup, the characters, the setting, the relationships, or the plot developments. This is not a majority view. People claim to love Silver Linings Playbook. Critics have garlanded it, and it’s won some end-of-year prizes.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.