The various characters in “Silver Linings Playbook” are gamblers, addicts, widows, adulterers and occasionally violent. Some are certifiably insane. This is writer-director David O. Russell’s idea of a romantic comedy, and it’s terrific – one of the freshest, funniest, most elevating crowd-pleasers of the year.
Like Russell’s previous entry into the rom-com genre (1996’s “Flirting with Disaster”), the movie uses a hearty and deep ensemble cast to distract you from the formulaic nature of the plot. You know where this one is headed right from the start, but the journey there is sheer pleasure and filled with surprising, strange detours.
Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, the film opens as Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former schoolteacher who had a breakdown when he walked in on his wife with another man, is released from a mental institution. He’s not entirely cured of his violent outbursts – he finishes Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and chucks the book through a glass window because he’s angry over the sad ending – but he’s trying. His forgiving mother (Jacki Weaver, radiating warmth and love) tries her best to keep her son calm and happy. His father (Robert De Niro, in his liveliest performance in years) is a superstitious bookie who tries to draw Pat into his obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even though his wife has a restraining order on him, Pat still tells everyone he’s married and believes he will somehow be able to win her back. When he meets Tiffany (a shockingly adult Jennifer Lawrence, leagues away from her adolescent “Hunger Games” persona), a widow who shares his manic-depressive ways, she doesn’t even register as a possible romantic interest. Part of the fun in “Silver Linings Playbook” is how long Russell makes us wait for Pat to realize what’s standing right in front of him: He’s too obsessed with the past and atoning for his bad behavior to be aware of the present.
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The style of “Silver Linings Playbook” is intentionally rough and messy, with characters talking over each other a la Robert Altman and Russell’s camera weaving through rooms without always telling you where you should look. The picture captures the boisterous nature of an extended group of relatives and the things we put up with for the sake of family, because what other choice is there? The director’s touch is present in every beat of the film, from the uniformly great performances (Cooper in particular is amazing here; for the first time in his career, he comes across as a true leading man) to the off-kilter rhythm of the humor.
The movie doesn’t break any new ground thematically, and in other hands this same material, which climaxes with a high-stakes dance contest (!), might have made for an insufferable Katherine Heigl vehicle. But Russell and his cast make it sing – and soar, too. This is a wonderful movie that makes something really difficult seem easy: Getting you to fall in love with characters that bear little relation to the real world.