It's not that Silver Linings Playbook fails at what it's trying to do, exactly. It's that the film is the first of its kind, and it can't be expected to get everything right. And a movie that includes mental illness, family function and dysfunction, football, romance, and sparkly dance costumes is biting off quite a bit to chew.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a middle school teacher who returns to his parents' house in suburban Pennsylvania after eight months in a mental institution. He comes home against his doctors' wishes, and is still obsessed with maintaining a positive attitude, hoping his estranged wife Nikki will come back to him. "Obsessed" in this case means more than "focused on." Pat is bipolar, and his (unmedicated) manic episodes fuel his insatiable need to prepare for his hypothetical reunion with Nikki. While home, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his best friend's recently widowed sister-in-law. One terrible dinner party later, the pair realize they have some psychotropic prescriptions in common, and start (literally) running into each other in their neighborhood. It will be a great day when women prove their greatness to men in ways OTHER than memorizing a lot of sports statistics, but that's a key aspect to the two main characters' tenative friendship-building.
Tiffany keeps her cards close to her chest, diagnosis-wise, but that doesn't stop both her and Pat from playing on each others' emotional vulnerabilities as they spend more time together. And when she does reveal part of what makes her tick (namely, how much of herself she gives to everyone around her) it's one of the most relatable speeches in the movie.
Which brings us to the problem with this movie's ambitions. In director David O'Russell's hands, mental states are sides of a coin, not points on a spectrum.
Every single character in Silver Linings Playbook seems to be wrestling with one or more serious mental disorders, and no one is talking about it. Pat's parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), for example, have worn decades-old tracks through the navigation of Pat Sr.'s addictions and compulsions. But even a startling incident of domestic violence isn't enough to crack anyone's silence about how the Official-Bipolar-Diagnosis son isn't the only one struggling.
Meanwhile, Pat and Tiffany get along so well in part because they use their various mental instabilities as conversational currency.
Silver Linings Playbook does deserve criticism for consistently avoiding the more realistic middle ground (some people have mental instabilities, some don't; some people talk about it, some don't), but it was also never aiming for it. It's a movie based on a novel with similar limitations. While this lack of subtelty misses a real opportunity, what's ambitious about the film is that it pitches a violent bipolar protagonist at an audience and asks for empathy.
Frustrating as it can be to watch, nixing nuance for a heavy-handed storyline that convinces viewers of Pat and Tiffany's humanity is forgivable. Hopefully Silver Linings is helping pave a road for future cinema, proving that films can feature sympathetic mentally ill characters and be embraced by mainstream movie-goers.