Scruffy and screwed-up – like most of its characters – Silver Linings Playbook is an encouraging effort from writer-director David O. Russell. With this story of two emotionally unstable friends (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), Russell takes the grimy realism of his last picture – the Oscar tart The Fighter – and matches it to the zaniness that was the hallmark of his earlier, better films. It’s maturity by way of mania.
Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a married teacher who has just gotten out of an eight-month stint in a psychiatric facility after a domestic-disturbance incident. Hoping to work his way back into the good graces of his wife, despite there being a restraining order between them, Pat agrees to partner with a neighbor (Lawrence) in a dance competition. The plan is to prove that he can be kind to others, responsible with his emotions and capable of keeping a commitment.
This plays more naturally than it sounds, and that has a lot to do with the performances. Cooper, the sparkly-eyed comic from Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, dims his pretty-boyishness without dampening his comic timing. Pat is a man keenly aware of his predicament – he believes in the path to mental health that’s been laid out for him – yet he’s still a prisoner to his volatile emotions. Cooper is true to both sides of that equation. Lawrence is even better. We’ve known since her breakout in Winter’s Bone that she has attitude, confirmed by her star turn in The Hunger Games, but here she’s grounded it in real, grown-up hurt. A widow who went on a sexual bender after her husband’s death, Lawrence’s Tiffany seethes with self-hatred. She clings to the dance – and to Pat, as the one guy who won’t put the moves on her – as her only instances of healthy validation. Together, they hit notes of confused desperation that occasionally recall the bleary glory of classic Cassavetes.
The films’ raw quality even awakens Robert De Niro. As Pat’s father, an ardent Philadelphia Eagles fan with obsessive-compulsive tendencies of his own, De Niro offers a richly realized portrait of a man in denial about the seriousness of his son’s mental health. There’s a great scene – one of the movie’s many verbal blow-ups – in which he and Lawrence rage at each other because he wants Pat to go to an Eagles game and she wants him at dance practice. The double delight of the moment is to see De Niro reinvigorated at exactly the same time that Lawrence proves she can hold her own against him.
Silver Linings Playbook is awash in lovely supporting performances, from Jacki Weaver as Pat’s cautious mom to John Ortiz as his on-the-brink friend to Chris Tucker as a fellow inmate of Pat’s who keeps escaping and making welcome, if fruitless, appearances. It’s when a bunch of these folks are in the same room, shouting and laughing and loving at each other, that Silver Linings Playbook recalls the screwball psychiatry of Russell’s Flirting With Disaster or I Heart Huckabees. Only this time, the farce also has a heart.