As its title suggests, “Silver Linings Playbook” is about looking for the bright side in life, acknowledging that sometimes it’s a victory just to be awake and functioning and wearing clothes. That’s an upbeat and sensitive message coming from David O. Russell, the famously “difficult” writer-director whose off-camera battles during “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees” are the stuff of Hollywood legend. His new film, which he adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, is more like his last one, “The Fighter”: down-to-earth, funnier than you’d expect, and sympathetic toward its volatile, damaged characters.
It’s romantic comedy of sorts, about a bi-polar Philadelphia man named Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) who moves in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) to get his life back together after a stint in a psychiatric facility. Seems he caught his wife cheating on him and beat the other fellow nearly to death — an understandable impulse, but one of those impulses one is supposed to repress. Now there’s a restraining order against him. He’s considered fit to be out in the world, but he still struggles with the highs and lows of his condition, and refuses to accept that his marriage is well and truly over.
He meets his buddy’s sister-in-law, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an aspiring dancer who’s got her own case of the crazies and is in a similarly transitional period of her life, living in the guest cottage behind her parents’ house. Pat and Tiffany’s friendship is adversarial at first, as they hilariously take turns pestering, harassing, and hitting on each other. He wants her to deliver a letter to his ex-wife; she wants him to be her partner in a dance competition.
For all its divergences from the usual formulas, “Silver Linings Playbook” succumbs to a few major ones, including a finale that rests on the outcome of a football game AND a dance contest. (That’s a twofer.) There’s also the matter of the helpful neighborhood cop who seems to be assigned exclusively to monitoring Pat’s behavior, and the matter of a fellow mental patient (played by Chris Tucker — his first non-“Rush Hour” film in 15 years) who keeps showing up, sitcom-style, despite having no real purpose in the story. But Bradley Cooper, who has emerged as a reliable comic actor in the last few years, shows new range in this deeper, more dramatic role, and is well-matched by Jennifer Lawrence (last seen as Katniss in “The Hunger Games”), a fiercely dedicated actress who can make sparks with just about anyone. That includes Robert De Niro, who shows more commitment and heart than he’s delivered in years as Pat Sr., an undiagnosed OCD sufferer and superstitious Eagles fan. Tiffany and Pat Sr.’s few moments of interaction, stubbornly squared-off against each other as they debate Pat Jr.’s wellbeing, are crackling highlights in this hopeful, semi-serious comedy.
B- (2 hrs., 2 min.; )