“Silver Linings Playbook” is rich in life’s complications. It will make you laugh, but don’t expect it to fit in any snug genre pigeonhole. Dramatic, emotional, even heartbreaking, as well as wickedly funny, it has the gift of going its own way, a complete success from a singular talent.
That would be the gifted writer-director David O. Russell, whose triumph with “The Fighter” two years ago marked a return to form after a spate of lean years. Russell, whose early successes include “Three Kings” and “Flirting With Disaster,” always brings intensity and passion to the proceedings: We aren’t coolly observing life in his films, we are compelled to live it full-bore along with his characters.
Upping the ante this time around are a pair of obsessive, unbalanced protagonists, splendidly played in different than usual roles by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, whose lives, not to put too fine a point on it, threaten to spiral out of control on a daily basis.
Battling in very different — and often painfully hilarious — ways to stay rational, Pat and Tiffany have got to wonder if accepting the attraction that’s in the air between them will only increase their problems and make them crazier than they already are.
“Silver Linings,” based on an engaging novel by Matthew Quick, benefits from more than Russell’s intensity. A father whose son, in the filmmaker’s words, “has been through challenging emotional trials,” Russell’s work is informed by an intimate, empathetic understanding of what it’s like in those moments when you feel a stranger to sanity, when an edgy sense of risk, uncertainty and even danger manages to invade the commonplace and the everyday.
It’s Pat who’s introduced first on his last day at a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore, where he’s been an involuntary resident for eight months. (Look for Chris Tucker in an irresistible supporting role as a fellow patient). Even though he’s well enough to be sprung by his mother, Dolores (a dead-on Jackie Weaver), and brought home to Philadelphia, Pat remains bipolar and not even close to being over the situation that put him inside in the first place, his obsession with his estranged wife, Nikki.
Though Nikki’s reasons (soon revealed) for not wanting Pat around are strong enough that she’s protected herself with a restraining order against him, Pat absolutely refuses to be discouraged. A manic optimist, he believes “if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining,” a happy ending to your life, and that is what he’s bound and determined to achieve.
Cooper’s persuasive work here couldn’t be more different from his earlier starring roles in the “Hangover” films. Thought Pat is handsome and likable, his uncompromising ferocity is more than a little scary, especially to his family, which he awakens on his first night back with a wild and crazy 4 a.m. rant about, true story, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Pat confidently tells everyone he meets “I am better now,” but the truth is he’s barely holding it together.
More aware of that than most is Pat’s father, Pat Sr., played by Robert De Niro with the kind of conviction he rarely brings to comic roles. A fanatical Philadelphia Eagles fan who’s so obsessive about possible jinxes he has a meltdown when anyone touches his TV’s remote control, Pat Sr. is working as a bookie and has so many anger-management issues of his own that he’s been banned from the team’s home field for fighting.
Given how laser-focused Pat is on getting Nikki back (he read the Hemingway novel because it’s on the high school English syllabus she teaches), it’s not surprising that socializing of any kind is not exactly high on his agenda. But friends with different ideas put together a dinner where he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), an attractive young widow who has considerable problems of her own stemming from the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death and her reaction to them.
Despite enormous wariness and disinterest on both sides, plus Pat’s Tourette’s-type weakness for blurting out exactly what he shouldn’t be saying, the two actually find something to talk about that night as they knowledgeably compare the efficacy of their respective psychotropic medications.
Though Lawrence has been memorable in films as diverse as “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hunger Games,” it’s still the pleasantest of shocks to see how terrific she is here in a completely different kind of fiercely comic, completely charismatic performance. Lawrence and Cooper face off in the most convincing way, matching each other stride for crazed stride. It would spoil the fun to even hint at all what goes down between two people equally possessed by partners who are not coming back, but you can be sure it won’t be dull.
That’s also true for “Silver Linings Playbook” as a whole. Russell’s gift for smart, honest and unexpected dialogue and situations keeps you off-balance in an almost addictive way. He’s brought a reality to the world’s damaged, uncertain strivers that makes them next door to irresistible, and that can’t have been an easy thing to do.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexual content/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
In general release