If filmmakers can take even a slight cue from David O. Russell’s latest, "rom-com" would no longer be a dirty word. Forget the early trailers portraying a not-so-intriguing feature. That peek is to the full movie what "good" is to something wonderful – that is, an encapsulation that isn't wrong, but is far from the full truth. The director of I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter has taken the increasingly narrow cinematic neck of the romantic-comedy genre, and shaken it silly, leading by example with the funny, intelligent, idiosyncratic, straightforward, comedically tear-inducing Silver Linings Playbook.
Imagine I Heart Huckabees blended with a mainstream comedy and classic romance. Bradley Cooper's Pat is a new incarnation of Mark Whalberg's Tommy, a warm and likable man whose temper-filled idealism clashes with the world around him, leading him into rages about anything and everything (think Tommy’s petroleum rant replaced with a critique of Ernest Hemingway). Freed by his mother from a court-mandated stint in a mental hospital, Pat struggles to handle his rage in a town where almost everyone treats him warily, except Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Scarred by the premature death of her husband, she has no social filter or embarrassment, and their meeting is electric.
Within minutes, they’re arguing with the candor and aggravation of the long married. He battles against the attraction, referencing his estranged wife like a lust-defeating mantra, while she embraces it. She pursues him, not with the persistence of a clueless gnat, but rather the resolve of reason – she’s the only person in his life with the piercing ability to penetrate his problems, and she quickly realizes that.
Both Cooper and Lawrence run wild as Pat and Tiffany. Cooper has never been better (even in fellow TIFF selection, The Place Beyond the Pines), while Lawrence slips into comedy with the same ease that she slips into heavy drama. Every moment feels so real that overwrought scores and cinematic manipulations are never necessary. Our desire for a happily ever after isn’t fed to us, or the result of some starry-eyed dream to take one of their places – it's because with everything the actors bring to life from the page, and every nuance they add to their roles, they're a great match. We're rooting for Pat and Tiffany rather than the cinematic expectation.
The best we can hope for in most modern romantic comedies is a film with palatable clichés. In the hands of O. Russell, however, the recognizable is merely an entry point into both the director's idiosyncratic vision and the characters’ very human narrative paths. Moments of anger are heartfelt revelations rather than superficial blowups to push the plot forward. When Pat and Tiffany dance, it's not framed as a grand moment of perfect footwork, iconic scores and grandiose memories. The camera rarely pulls back – preferring, instead, to make the moment intimate, focusing on the pair’s upper body and how they look at and move with each other. It’s the film listening to its characters. Tiffany praises dancing’s ability to share emotion, so the camera reveals it.
It’s easy to read the trailer as yet another “she’s a slutty, crazy stalker” story where the girl gets the boy to do something “girly” until he submits to her romantic obsession. How the trailer frames the film is a lot like how stereotypes frame life – a pile of suggested assumptions that are far from the whole, visceral, human and sometimes insidiously funny truth. Silver Linings Playbook finds the reality – in life, in the crazy, in the motivations, in the actors often woefully shackled to crap (Robert De Niro), and the actors have more than our assumptions expect (Chris Tucker). It’s a film that describes romance to be a smart, human, relatable emotion that isn’t imprisoned in gender roles and stereotypes, and the fact that it can make a packed audience of men and women break out in loud laughter proves the premise right.