Adapted from a novel by Matthew Quick, the picture stars Bradley Cooper as Pat, an emotionally troubled man recently released from a mental institution where he was ordered to stay after a violent outburst. As the film opens, Pat goes back to live with his mother (Jacki Weaver) and father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), in the Philadelphia home where he grew up. Severely bipolar -- a condition that manifests itself more often than not in an inability to keep from saying the first thing that pops into his head -- Pat is reluctant to stay on his medication. Instead, he focuses on doing everything he can to win back his wife, a goal made rather complicated by the fact that she has filed a restraining order against him.
Russell manages to play this situation for laughs without once mocking the seriousness of Pat's condition or treating the character like a victim. It helps that Pat is self-aware enough to know what he's going through -- an aspect of his personality accentuated by his frequent visits to his therapist (Anupam Kher) and his understanding that Pat Sr.'s OCD-tinged habits on Philadelphia Eagles' game days aren't exactly a model of psychological health.
Through friends, Pat is set up on a blind date of sorts with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a twentysomething suffering from her own mental imbalances since going through a personal trauma. The two oddballs hit it off as friends, though Pat still wants to reconcile with his wife more than anything. Tiffany offers to pass along a letter to his ex -- she sees her regularly -- if Pat will help her compete in a local dance contest.
The plot of Silver Linings Playbook makes it sound like the kind of quirky-cute romantic comedy churned out on a regular basis -- it's not hard to imagine Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the same situation -- but Russell's consistently funny and verbose script, coupled with his long-standing affection for underdogs, elevate this material into a glorious piece of Hollywood genre filmmaking. This is a rom com done not just right, but timelessly.
Bradley Cooper has already established himself as a star, but he's never had a part that fit him better than this one. He often projects smugness and an utter lack of vulnerability, and while those traits made him a perfect choice as the narcissistic center of The Hangover films, it doesn't prepare you for how perfect a role Pat is for him. The innate superiority he projects underscores how incredibly infuriating the character is for those around him, but it also becomes something Pat must overcome; it's tempting to read the movie at some level as Cooper learning to become an even better actor.
However, Jennifer Lawrence delivers a star-making performance, absorbing the part of Tiffany in a way that should and will put her in the running for tons of year-end accolades. At 22 she's already an Oscar nominee -- and as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games she's the anchor of a blockbuster franchise -- but as Tiffany she balances tough Philly attitude, grief, self-destruction, and sexiness, and is terrifically funny on top of it all, proving herself to be an actress capable of winning our hearts without dumbing down.
She gets a showcase scene about two-thirds of the way through, a monologue with strong echoes of the moment in which Amy Adams confronts her boyfriend's sisters in Russell's The Fighter, and she takes control of the screen like a jazz musician finally getting to solo in front of fellow players who have laid the groundwork for her to shine. In addition, we pay attention because it's a key scene in the story -- a turning point that establishes character goals you didn't see coming but make total sense. As a screenwriter, Russell pulls this trick off throughout the movie, undercutting our expectations without ever pulling the rug out from underneath us, and as a director he shows a deft touch when following through with these twists.
Many people might mitigate their praise for the film, or dismiss it out of hand, because it's just a crowd-pleaser. That shortsightedness overlooks how rarely a movie pleases any and all crowds as well as this one does. At a time when everything seems aimed at a particular niche, Silver Linings Playbook reminds us how wonderful it is, as you make your way out of the theater, to see your own satisfied smile reflected in the faces of total strangers.