Writer/Director David O. Russell, who turned the 2010 boxing movie The Fighter into a devastating drama about a high-strung, high-maintenance family with Shakespearean flaws, is exactly the right person to be at the helm of the new black comedy Silver Linings Playbook.
Here, too, Russell spins gold out of material that could have tarnished or gone rusty pretty quickly.
Hollywood has a way of idiotically and insensitively making mental illness a punch line. But Russell’s smarter than that; he’s on top of the fact that, handled intelligently, diagnoses can make characters more human and relatable. Subsequently, his two leads in the film struggle with grief, loss, depression, and mania in ways that don't marginalize or ridicule them.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just come home to Mom (Jacki Weaver, Oscar nominated for playing quite a different breed of Mom in Animal Kingdom) and Dad (Robert De Niro) after eight months in a psychiatric hospital for bipolar disorder - sort of an alternative to being incarcerated after he beat up one of his wife’s co-workers when he caught them in the shower. He promptly befriends and becomes entangled with a buddy’s volatile sister-in-law, Tiffany (Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow bereft of verbal boundaries and social etiquette. She's a breath of fresh yet harsh air, who couldn’t care less what people think of her or how they react to her pithy put downs.
A less original story would have Pat and Tiffany instantly become emotionally involved and head to the altar by the midway point. But Russell’s movie is more complicated because neither of them are necessarily on the market. Pat is hell-bent on reconnecting with his wife while Tiffany is still mourning the loss of her late husband, killed while being a Good Samaritan two years prior. However they do hash out a deal: she’ll help him and his wife reunite if he’ll be her partner for a ballroom dance competition.
This plot device would be ultra-cheesy in less capable hands. Russell’s script (based on a novel by Matthew Quick) helps the proceedings feel lived in and the acting is spot-on, especially Jennifer Lawrence. Her Tiffany is at once quirky, ballsy, and sad, and it’s one of the best performances by an actress this year. De Niro is back in shape as an actor - he’s engagingly warm and cranky - after several years of phoned-in performances in sloppy movies that seem to go straight to Redbox. Cooper’s fine - all pointy chin, sea-blue eyes, and a hair-trigger temper - but still not all that convincing as an actor with a great deal of depth. (The only successful movie's he's dominated are the two Hangover pictures, which are funny but paper-thin.) At least here Lawrence and De Niro pull something out of him and he doesn’t at all embarrass himself.