After becoming familiar with him in handsome, hyper-masculine, smooth-operating roles in films like The Hangover (2009), He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), and Limitless (2011), it’s refreshing and a little confusing to see Bradley Cooper in a role that is vulnerable, self-conscious, and socially inappropriate. When bipolar Pat Solitano (Cooper) returns to his parents’ house after an eight-month stint in a mental hospital, his goal is to reunite himself with his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee). Pat is almost childlike in his straightforwardness and unflinching sincerity, openly saying things like, “I don’t have an iPod. I don’t even have a phone. They won’t let me make any calls. They think I’m going to call Nikki. I would call Nikki.” He spends his time reading novels from Nikki’s high school syllabus, going on solitary jogs while wearing a garbage bag, and plotting ways to get a letter through Nikki’s restraining order — and we as viewers fall in love with him, despite the fact that, as one kind young lady points out, he says more inappropriate things than appropriate things.
The young lady is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow and the sister-in-law of Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz). Pat and Tiffany meet at a dinner party, where Tiffany demonstrates her own social peculiarities by asking Pat about his medication in the middle of dinner; leaving mid-meal because she’s “tired”; and, on the walk home, bluntly telling Pat that she’ll let him sleep with her if he turns the lights off.
Pat is put off by Tiffany, later telling his therapist that she is a “loyal married-to-a-dead-guy slut,” but a friendship develops between the two of them when Tiffany agrees to bring a letter to Nikki. Her demand is that Pat, in return, be her partner in an upcoming dance competition — which he reluctantly agrees to do.
The first half-hour is the strongest section of the film. The setup is punchy and nicely paced, both amusing and poignant, and we are introduced to a host of characters, each of whom brings his or her own idiosyncrasies to the table. Pat’s father, played by Robert De Niro, reveals himself to have some mental problems of his own, showing signs of OCD with his rituals and superstition concerning the Eagles football team. He also has the ability to explode violently, not unlike Pat, and this feeds into Pat’s denial of some of his problems: “Look, I’m not the explosion guy, okay? My father is the explosion guy.”
If this film should be congratulated on anything, it is its upbeat and sympathetic depiction of mental illness. Finally, here is a romantic comedy about two people who are real outsiders. We learn through Pat’s therapy sessions that he was sent to the mental institute because he caught Nikki cheating on him and almost beat her lover to death. Now, he has emerged with a new outlook: excelsior is his motto (Latin for “ever upward”), and he is determined to find the silver lining in every situation. And yet we see how his bipolar disorder hampers his progress, and how he struggles to suppress violent outbursts, both verbal and physical.
Tiffany has her own slew of problems, including depression, a vicious temper, and what sounds like a possible sex addiction. She is no quirky, adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she is gritty, rude, and startlingly frank. But beneath her rough exterior is a sensitive side, which is somehow surprising and not predictable in the film — perhaps because her standoffish façade seems so genuine.
Mental illness is something that is generally not taken seriously enough, and I was impressed with Russell’s apt choice to take a look into what living with various disorders can be like. Both Pat and Tiffany struggle with their disorders, with the unpleasant side effects of medication, with the desire not to be perceived as “crazy” by those around them. And yet their characters are not defined solely by their mental illness, and they lead rich lives, which is what makes them so likable to us. They are untraditional characters, but they still serve as the traditional hero and heroine of the story.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to the beginning, nor does it do the characters justice. Pat and Tiffany grow closer through their dance rehearsals, but each does his/her share of manipulating and being dishonest to the other — a problem that is never really reconciled. And the film’s third act is, sadly, all sorts of cliché. High stakes are placed on Pat and Tiffany’s success in the competition; the two have a falling out when Pat misses a day of rehearsal to go to an Eagles game; Pat receives encouragement from his father to pursue true love; etc. Everything is set up for a neat, Hollywood ending, which is a disappointing way to conclude a story that begins so cleverly. While a happy ending is definitely appropriate for a story that is all about silver linings, I wished that the happy ending had been less generic. It is a neat, tidy, and ordinary ending for two characters who are anything but neat, tidy, and ordinary.
The film is certainly an enjoyable ride — and the first ten minutes feature the most hilarious and justifiable reaction to the end of A Farewell to Arms that I have ever seen (Pat finishes the book, says, “What the f—k?” and flings it out the window). But the flat, conventional ending will leave the viewer feeling a little less than satisfied when the lights come up.