Your typical romantic comedy generally doesn’t have very high stakes. Oh sure, for the two leads it may be a matter of love life or death, but in the grand scheme of things, whether or not two people get together isn’t the end of the world. And it’s that lighter tone that allows the usual romantic comedy tropes to go down a little more smoothly. We can get wrapped up in how awkwardly cute the initial meeting is and worry over the misunderstandings and near-misses along the way because, honestly, it’s not like the two attractive characters we’re watching will have any trouble finding someone else if this doesn’t work out. Fortunately, David O. Russell isn’t interested in making a typical romantic comedy. Silver Linings Playbook has all the earmarks of one — the meet-cute, the near-misses, the climactic romantic gesture, all of it — except instead of being unable to find that certain special someone, the main problem of the two leads is near-crippling bi-polar disorder. Harry ain’t meeting Sally any time soon here.
Not that Silver Linings Playbook is some unrelentingly grim post-modern take on the rom-com. It’s quirky and funny, but the dark streaks in both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence aren’t glossed over either. They aren’t a couple of goofily misguided ne’er do wells, they’re deeply damaged people who think they’re a lot more healthy than they actual are. That denial over the state of their psyches mirrors the usual denial of attraction between two romantic leads (although that’s here as well). Each not only has to come to the realization they love the other, they have to reach a point where they’re even capable of doing so. And while that’s not too far afield from normal rom-com territory, Russell’s script and the strong performance from Cooper and Lawrence help ground it in a more believable setting. That helps make their eventual connection far from a foregone conclusion, and one you actively root for to happen.
It doesn’t hurt that the entire cast is incredibly likeable. Aside from Cooper and Lawrence (who have chemistry to burn between the two of them), Robert DeNiro hasn’t been this engaged in years. He’s actually playing a character here rather than the “Robert DeNiro as …” roles he’s been taking of late, and, as Cooper’s father, he does a great job both as he tries to reconnect with his son and as he displays a lot of the traits that most likely led to his son’s mental state in the first place. He’s also given the provider of sage wisdom role late in the film, but since he’s been an actual character and not just an archetype, the moment has some weight to it. It’s a father finally connecting with his son in a meaningful way, for both of them.
Even with its added weight, Silver Linings Playbook isn’t a terribly significant film. The “all you need is love” approach to the leads’ mental issues is a tad convenient, and some of the third act complications make the seams show a little. I can see the awards love Cooper and Lawrence have been getting, and a charming cast and tight script can go a long way, even if nobody’s reinventing the wheel. But after all is said and done, it’s the attempt to ground the rom-com in more realistic territory that makes the film stand out. It says that sometimes, love isn’t a matter of finding the right person, but being the right person.