On paper, the ingredients for a screwball romantic-comedy that combines bipolar disorder, depression, football mania, and a dance competition would seem to have mood swings of its own and shouldn’t work. But with writer-director David O. Russell (he of 2010’s tough, nuanced “The Fighter”) finding a delicate balance in tone, character, and everything else, “Silver Linings Playbook” pulls it off. The film might not reinvent the genre playbook entirely but it does so much right and with intelligence and modesty.
Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), a substitute history teacher with bipolar disorder, finds himself living back with his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver), in his working-class Philly neighborhood. He’s spent an eight-month stint in a Baltimore mental ward after suffering a violent breakdown when he caught his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), in the shower with another man. Now that he’s lost his marriage and his job, Pat just wants to start over, even though he refuses to take his meds and has the delusion that he and Nikki, who has a restraining order against him, are still very much in love.
Staying in shape, Pat jogs around town and runs into his old pal Ronnie (John Ortiz), whose shrewish wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) invites him over for dinner one night. It turns out to be set-up for Pat to meet Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Veronica’s sister; she’s recently widowed after the death of her husband and has just lost her job for sleeping with everyone. She’s a damaged mess, just like Pat. All he wants is a shot at a silver lining, so maybe Tiffany can help him. Meanwhile, Dad is a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic with a case of OCD. His bet on the game and his son’s dance contest meld together in a clever, triumphant way.
Armed with Russell’s whip-smart script (adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel) and all-around terrific performances, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a rarity in that it doesn’t fit into one tidy genre or category. Every character has his and her flaws, and Russell luckily doesn’t shy away from those but has affection for them and invests us with rooting interest. Though there are over-the-top moments, none of the characters are written in broad strokes either. Russell shoots the film in a zoomy hand-held style, much like Pat’s own anxieties, and handles his frantic, character-stuffed story with cohesion. The core of the story hinges on Pat and his time spent with Tiffany, who agrees to pass a letter onto Nikki if he practices a dance routine with her for a city competition, but their relationship is interesting. Aside from their own jagged personalities, they hit it off because they’re both a little nutty.
Slick and charming in previous roles, Cooper undeniably gives his deepest, most dynamic, career-best performance here. As Pat, he’s given the chance to dial back his physical attractivess a bit and show what he can actually do with a more relatable and complex character. The 22-year-old Lawrence, again, does terrific work in her most adult role to date. In every way, she’s Cooper’s equal without dominating, but she comes close, and they’re lovely together, sharing a rat-a-tat-tat banter full of humor and genuine feeling. De Niro, who’s phoned in his performances and come off as a caricature in the last few years, gets to shine as Pat’s pops who also has some anger issues, a past incident banishing him from the stadium. Weaver was such a force in the 2010 Australian crime-drama “Animal Kingdom,” and here, she finds a matronly warmth and humor in her peripheral role. Chris Tucker is also here as Pat’s fellow inmate who keeps getting out of the loony bin and then get back in; back on the screen five years later, the “Rush Hour” actor is usually irritating but not here.
Rawly authentic, unexpectedly affecting, and offbeat in the best way, “Silver Linings Playbook” doesn’t feel the need to trade in its messiness and nerve for formula and cuddliness. That’s not to say it’s not funny and romantic, or that it doesn’t end happily, but the most humorous and sweetest kinds of people are the ones that don’t know itâ€”just like this film.
122 min., rated R.
Grade: A –