Family nuttiness, football madness, romantic obsession, and certifiable mental illness coexist happily in Silver Linings Playbook — a crazy beaut of a comedy that brims with generosity and manages to circumvent predictability at every turn. Our damaged, bipolar hero, Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), first makes his entrance in a psych ward. He’s been committed because he beat the crap out of a guy, though there were mitigating circumstances: The guy was sleeping with Pat’s wife. Who has since dumped Pat. Which has sent Pat on a mission to win her back. In any event, when the precariously upbeat fellow is sprung from the bin by his doting mother (wonderful Jacki Weaver from Animal Kingdom), he returns to the bosom of a Philly family that thrums with crazy as a way of life, much of it generated by Pat’s father (Robert De Niro). Fixated on the family’s favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, and doing haphazard business as a bookie, the old man employs an arsenal of superstitions and obsessive-compulsive behaviors to ”ensure” his team wins. It’s been ages since De Niro has had a role this juicy, or has looked so alive and fully engaged — the difference, I suppose, between taking yet another role that’s a Fockers-like parody of aggressive De Niro-fication and one that’s a man in full, OCD and all, frustrated by the ways a loving father just can’t help his own son.
Cooper, meanwhile, has been having a helluva career rise. But the sense of personality wobble he brings to his portrayal of Pat is something new in his repertory, and it’s a revelation. There’s a look the actor gets in those nice blue eyes, something between a stare, a dare, and a cringe, that distills a whole mess of conflicting impulses and emotions into one appealing expression of vulnerability. And Cooper meets a singular partner in crime (and chemistry) in the fabulous Jennifer Lawrence, the girl on fire, who is incandescent as Tiffany, a local young woman with issues of her own.
Somehow, in the story’s loose, loopy trajectory, Tiffany and Pat learn to dance together — I mean really dance, so they can enter a ballroom competition, with all that signifies for emotional connection. Yet in scenes of Pat and Tiffany rehearsing, doing flailing aerobic sprints down suburban streets, and squabbling with the special intensity of two people with unreliable filters, nothing about this crazy-boy-meets-wacky-girl romance is what a moviegoer is cued to expect. For such freshness, writer-director David O. Russell can take the bow. Silver Linings Playbook is based on a best-selling 2008 novel by Matthew Quick. Still, Russell’s own flair for playing with characters who flirt with disaster is what gives the movie its peculiar verve and unique sense of controlled chaos. His last outing, The Fighter, was a Big Broody Brotherly movie. But it’s the filmmaker’s empathy for exotically and often hilariously unhinged characters — something he’s displayed in odd jobs including Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, and Three Kings — that is his signature contribution to Americano-auteurist storytelling. Silver Linings scoops up a whole lot of ancillary nutjobs in the course of the mayhem, among them Rush Hour‘s Chris Tucker as Pat’s buddy from the psych ward, Anupam Kher as Pat’s shrink, and John Ortiz as a stressed-out neighborhood pal married to Tiffany’s controlling sister (Julia Stiles). Russell welcomes them all into the rumble with open arms. The movie is lit with a love that catches the viewer by surprise. We’re ready for the comedy of craziness, but the depth of compassion is the movie’s silver lining. A