Never one to shy away from unlikely sources of comedy, David O. Russell tackles mental illness, marital failure and the curative powers of football with bracingly sharp and satisfying results in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Again bringing an invigorating edge to whip-smart mainstream fare a la “The Fighter,” the writer-director employs a twitchy visual syntax to match the dazzling verbal acumen of his two screw-loose leads, terrifically played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Strong reviews and word of mouth should make this boisterous and heartfelt loser love story a year-end winner for the Weinstein Co.
In adapting Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, Russell doesn’t merely aim to tell the story of Pat Solatano (Cooper), a former substitute teacher and cuckolded husband who’s just emerged from eight months in a mental institution. From d.p. Tasanobu Takayanagi’s whooshing, zooming handheld camerawork to editor Jay Cassidy’s jumpy, hyper-caffeinated rhythms, the intent is clearly to bring the viewer into close identification with Pat’s troubled but weirdly upbeat mindset. At the same time, this ensemble laffer manages to take a longer view of the character’s recovery, a journey aided in significant and quite unexpected ways by his friends and family.
Returning to his family’s home in Philly suburbia, Pat reassures his warily supportive parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) that he no longer needs medication, he’s in the best shape of his life, and he’s determined to woo back his wife, Nikki, who left him around the time of his confinement. But despite his persistent belief in silver linings (“Excelsior!” he’s fond of repeating to himself), it’s not long before Pat’s bipolar disorder, already apparent in his delusional tendencies and lack of anything resembling a verbal filter, begins to violently reassert itself.
Because the film’s immersive approach has little use for straightforward exposition, it takes a while before the reasons for Pat’s meltdown and Nikki’s subsequent restraining order against him become entirely clear. Around the same time, Pat strikes up an unusual friendship with abrasive, dark-haired widow Tiffany (Lawrence), a self-described “crazy slut with a dead husband,” and apparently the sole neighborhood resident capable of relating to the local wacko.
The film’s key tension is between Pat’s refusal to become intimate with a woman besides his wife, and Tiffany’s determination to open him up to new experiences, possibilities and people. Falling into his arms tearfully one minute, administering a sharp slap the next, Tiffany is a marvelously unstable element, daring Pat to judge her for her own past misdeeds, though she has no qualms about cutting through his defenses and attacking what she sees or doesn’t see in him.
In a script that never lapses into mundane or uninteresting language, the scenes between Pat and Tiffany are sculpted with an almost David Mamet-like sharpness, amplified onscreen by the intimacy and focus of Russell’s direction and the superbly harmonized lead performances. Exuding his usual cranked-up charisma, Cooper has one of his best roles here as a damaged soul whose misconceptions nonetheless hide an unimpeachable core integrity. Yet it’s Lawrence’s Tiffany who has the most dynamic effect on the picture, always pushing Pat into a defensive position and, remarkably, making him look like a model of sanity by comparison.
The film’s mildly farcical structure fleetingly recalls Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster” and “I Heart Huckabees,” just as its fascination with psychologically unbalanced protagonists brings to mind the more squirm-inducing likes of “Spanking the Monkey.” Yet if “Silver Linings Playbook” is a softer, gentler thing than the director’s previous works, following a traditional finding-yourself-and-falling-in-love template in the guise of something moderately darker and more subversive, it nonetheless boasts a level of charm, heart and formal sophistication increasingly rare among adult-driven studio comedies.
While the pic’s willingness to make light of Pat’s disorder may give some pause (at one point, he and Tiffany bond over which meds they have and haven’t taken), it doesn’t soft-pedal his journey to rock-bottom, and Russell’s technique so bristlingly evokes the character’s mental state that one feels sympathetically swept up in his experience rather than positioned outside it. After a somewhat saggy midsection, the story takes a surprising and ultimately exhilarating turn, as seemingly digressive subplots involving a “So You Think You Can Dance”-style competition and the Solatanos’ idolatry of their favorite sports team, the Philadelphia Eagles, pay off bigtime in the closing reels. Pic sends the viewer out on an unabashed and hard-won high note.
Chris Tucker makes a rare and effective appearance as Pat’s best mental-ward buddy, Weaver is a warm delight as his pacifist mother, and it’s hard to remember the last time De Niro was this effortlessly endearing and relaxed onscreen. Danny Elfman’s music and the soundtrack supervised by Sue Jacobs (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” has a key plot function) compulsively thread in and out of the action, always serving to reflect Pat’s heightened mental/emotional states. Other tech credits for the Pennsylvania-shot picture are pro.