It is truly refreshing to finally see a romantic comedy about real messed-up people instead of forced whimsy messed-up caricatures. Yes, as raw and disturbing Silver Linings Playbook can be at times with its true to life depiction of mental illness, I still consider it to be a romantic comedy because it follows a pretty strict structure of the popular genre.
First we have the troubled man who got burned from a previous relationship. Pat (Bradley Cooper) returns from a mental institution to live with his parents and get his life back together. He snapped after an unfortunate event with his wife that ended in violence and is now obsessed with getting her back.
Of course at this point we introduce the troubled girl. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has her own problems. She just lost her husband and in order to deal with her grief, has turned into a bit of a nymphomaniac.
There is always a scene in romantic comedies described as "Meet-cute", when our seemingly incompatible couple meets for the first time and exchange quirky dialogue. The scene when Pat and Tiffany meet is not cute by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a hell of a lot more interesting to watch then having to sit through the condescending dialogue of a cookie cutter Matthew McConaughey rom-com.
Yes, director David O. Russel's (Three Kings) film presents Pat's bipolar disorder with as much honesty and brutality as possible, which will make the audience cringe during some scenes and might make some people who have to deal with serious mental illness in their family uncomfortable. But it's also the best romantic comedy that revolves around mental illness since As Good As It Gets, even though Silver Linings Playbook is more raw and honest.
It's a movie that strips away all of the conventional clichés found in this genre regarding dysfunctional personalities and does not try to turn them into adorable creatures fighting against the squares. Pat has real, tangible problems that he needs to deal with through therapy, and so does Tiffany in many ways. The way they deal with their problems through each other's company is not conveniently wrapped up and is fraught with relatable conflict.
Tiffany forces Pat to practice her dancing for a competition in exchange for a massive favor. In a more conventional film, this would be perfect fodder to add one or two montage sequences and turn Pat into a brand new man within five minutes of screen time. But David O. Russel knows dealing with these characters require great patience. If the ending is somewhat conventional, we forgive him because his characters deserve that moment.
Silver Linings Playbook is about these far from perfect people finding each other in the middle of utter confusion. In that way, it deserves comparison to great romantic comedies like The Apartment and Punch-Drunk Love. Now I know a lot of people, mostly women, and my wife among them, who hates these films because they are not the usual sugary and easily consumable members of a genre that has its great share of such easy fast food. They are about real people, in real situations who find joy through each other against all odds.
Ironically, one of the themes in Silver Linings Playbook is built upon the idea that great art can be sad. After reading Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Pat wakes his parents in the middle of the night to rip the book apart. "Life is hard enough as it is, why do we have to be reminded of that in art?", he complains. Later on, his sentiments backfire.
My golden rule is "No great film is depressing and every bad film is." There's a reason why, as a film critic, I look forward to November and December, when "depressing" prestige Oscar-bait films come out and dread January and September, when studios release their disposable "entertaining" movies. I guess it depends on how comfortable you are with being blatantly lied to and conveniently sedated. All fictional film lies, and the ending of Silver Linings Playbook is a big lie, but it's a matter of how much you're willing to take.
Regardless, this is one of the best films of the year.