Every awards season needs its surefire crowd-pleaser, and David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” is it. This screwy and hugely compassionate comedy is also a genre-defying collision of football, ballroom dancing, family drama, mental illness and romantic intrigue. The movie follows Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a troubled man struggling with his bipolar disorder. He was committed to a psych ward after catching another man with his wife, Nicky, and consequently nearly beating him to death. Now having been released and picked up by his loving, dedicated mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver of “Animal Kingdom”), Pat’s on a life mission to get his wife back. The number of times he mentions her name is a sickness in itself, and it comes with a peculiarly positive outlook on life with the motto “excelsior.” Much like he did with his last outing “The Fighter,” Russell excels in bringing to life colorful idiosyncrasies; here it’s the hectic, buzzing nature of Pat’s Philly family to which he’s brought home.
Robert De Niro plays Pat Sr., a father who doesn’t fully realize the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. He’s an obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan who turns his football fanaticism into an entire family affair. He lost his job and was banned from the stadium for fighting, so he conducts risky business as a bookie leaving him glued to the TV exhibiting irrational and superstitious behaviors to ensure his team wins. Meanwhile he’s frustrated that he doesn’t know how to help his own son. This is De Niro’s juiciest role in a very long time, and he looks more engaged than ever. Perhaps because it’s not just another “Fockers” sequel, and thank goodness because it reminds us why he’s one of this generation’s great veteran actors.
The movie is a little wobbly to start establishing Pat’s personal predicament, but it really gets its footing once Jennifer Lawrence’s widowed Tiffany is introduced. They meet at a dinner party hosted by Tiffany’s controlling sister, Veronica (Julia Stiles), and her stifled husband, Ronnie (John Ortiz). The minute Pat and Tiffany lock eyes, there is a connection, a chemistry. Tiffany even bluntly asks to have sex, but that’s not what she means. She’s only turning to her typical habit when it comes to interacting with men. They feed off each other’s unfiltered, manic energy, and their scenes together are something to behold. Lawrence appears transformed since we were first introduced to her in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” At only 22, she really is the girl on fire, straddling both the “Hunger Games” franchise and an incredibly unhinged performance like this.
Cooper is a comparable match to Lawrence, an actor with a prolific career who tops it off here. The off-kilter sway, momentum and fidgety air he brings to Pat is revelatory and unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. Behind those bright blue eyes is a vulnerability, a conflicting mess of impulses and emotions; lucky for him, it’s something Tiffany shares. They both flirt with disaster, but at least now they can do it together.
Having both written and directed it from the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Russell brings the work of a true auteur to “Silver Linings Playbook” with a love for his characters, a very unique rhythm and a quirky sense of controlled chaos. The zany family he sets into play builds and gets more convoluted, especially with the additions of Pat’s buddy from the psych ward, played by Chris Tucker who we arguably haven’t seen since “Rush Hour,” and Anupam Kher as Pat’s shrink.
The film’s loose storytelling takes Pat and Tiffany to a dance competition — and without giving too much away, their dance is a sporadic treat, a schizophrenic blast of motion that perfectly mirrors what goes on inside these characters’ heads. The scene recalls to mind the beauty pageant at the end of “Little Miss Sunshine,” a misshapen family unit coming together. While one of the lessons of “Silver Linings” may just be to find your own silver lining in life, the real silver lining may be that no matter who you are, everybody’s just a little bit crazy.