Silver Linings Playbook - review

The excess baggage in this film is thankfully relieved by Robert De Niro's grumpy-funny turn.

Silver Linings Playbook (15)
dir: David O Russell

It’s clear that the hero and heroine of Silver Linings Playbook are made for one another from the moment they meet. He asks her immediately how her husband died, having been warned not to raise the topic, while she quizzes him about the medication he’s on now that he has been discharged from a mental institution. It turns out they’ve both taken many of the same meds. Small world! He is Pat (Bradley Cooper), trying to put his life back together after being found guilty of a violent attack on his wife’s lover. She is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose response to bereavement has been to sleep around at the office, drawing the line only at the coffee machine.

Of course, Pat and Tiffany don’t know they are right for each other. They’re in a film, whereas we are watching one and have doubtless seen many such odd-couple stories of love among the antidepressants (Benny and Joon, say, or Mike Figgis’s underrated Mr Jones). Hollywood’s attitude towards mental illness has typically been patronising or simplistic but then so has its attitude towards most disabilities. Why should the mentally ill get special privileges? Silver Linings Playbook is no exception, though it does have instances of authentic feeling distinct from its ingratiating tone.

After leaving hospital, Pat moves in with his parents, who have their own problems – his mother (Jacki Weaver) is jittery; his father (Robert De Niro) has more than his share of superstitions and OCD. Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) is falling apart from the effort of pretending that all is dandy in his life. “People like Tiffany and me, maybe we know something,” Pat decides, and the film seems to concur. The writer-director David O Russell peddles the line that anyone declared to be suffering from a mental illness has simply got their diagnosis ahead of the rest of us.

That’s not to say Pat doesn’t have conspicuous issues. He talks a mile a minute and kids himself that he and his wife are working on their marriage, overlooking the restraining order she has against him. He expresses his dissatisfaction with A Farewell to Arms by throwing the book out of the window, which would be fine if he opened the window first. His is a photogenic condition that manifests itself in charming eccentricity – ordering cereal on a dinner date, exercising overenthusiastically while wearing a bin liner – rather than in drooling and swaying. When Pat suffers a relapse, the script piles on the mitigating circumstances. He keeps his temper in check after seeing his psychiatrist racially insulted. He holds back even when the man is assaulted. But once the miscreants start on Pat’s brother –well, that’s too much. Let us be grateful no one saw fit to add an injured orphan into the mix.

It’s disappointing to find such cautious filmmaking from Russell, who has in the past aimed for the funny bone via the cerebral cortex rather than the tear ducts or the heartstrings. His 1994 debut, Spanking the Monkey, a breezy story of mother-son incest, announced a talent for finding comic tensions in dysfunctional families.

Russell pursued this in the screwball adoption comedy Flirting With Disaster (1996) and The Fighter (2010), a boxing movie in which the most electrifying spats were verbal and domestic. So it follows that the strongest moments in Silver Linings Playbook arise when large groups of people are barking and bantering in humdrum living rooms, lit by the cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi with celebratory brightness. (He shoots the whole film in a kind of beige dazzle.)

Cooper, known primarily for the vulgar Hangover films, nails Pat’s mania but not the mournful side of the character. Lawrence, who at 22 has given enough outstanding performances (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) to seem like a veteran already, is nicely abrasive.

The biggest surprise comes from De Niro, whose previous comedy work has drawn from a shallow well: however amusing he was in Midnight Run or Analyse This, he was being grumpy-funny, De Niro-funny. Playing Pat Sr, he locates in himself a lightness that has no overlap with his past roles. In proving that it is possible to cast off cumbersome baggage, he expresses in his gentle performance the same message that the film takes two hours and much superfluous huffing and puffing to convey.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis