There's the romantic comedy where beautiful people flit from strength to strength on gossamer wings, and then there's the kind where characters sweat and struggle for whatever happy endings they manage to churn up. "Silver Linings Playbook," the latest film by David O. Russell, is squarely in the second camp.
Set in a gritty, blue-collar district of Philadelphia, the movie tracks former schoolteacher Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) as he tries to re-integrate himself into his family life after his discharge from a psychiatric hospital. Mr. Cooper delivers a bracing performance as a manic-depressive, coping with violent impulses, uncontrollable mood swings, and an unhealthy obsession with his estranged wife Nikki (Brea Bee). Best known for his suave style and chiseled features, Mr. Cooper here mostly conceals his good looks with close-cropped hair, razor stubble and a restless gaze.
Pat's family and friends are understandably skittish about his return. He didn't seek treatment by choice -- he was hospitalized by court order after he viciously beat his wife's lover after he caught them together in the shower. Mr. Russell weaves in flashbacks to the decisive moment both as back story and as way to give the audience a sense of the fragility of Pat's traumatized psyche.
The movie dwells on the protagonist's personal darkness more than your average romantic comedy, but in time it observes the time-honored formula. There's the "meet-cute" when Pat is introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a sexually compulsive young widow who lives in her parents' renovated garage. Sparks fly as they compare notes about the blunting side effects of various anti-psychotic drugs they've been prescribed. Pat is too fixated on the improbable goal of getting back together with his wife to pay much attention to their developing attraction. She connives to spend more time with him by promising to surreptitiously deliver letters to Nikki (in contravention of a restraining order) in exchange for him acting as her partner in an upcoming dance contest.
This plot arc is paired with the efforts of Pat's bookie father (Robert De Niro) to win a big bet on his beloved Eagles. In Pat Sr., Mr. De Niro has found a role that makes the most of his over-the-top late career acting style. Despite his New York accent, Mr. De Niro looks at home in his Eagles cardigan sweater, yelling at the TV and superstitiously clutching good luck charms.
The twinning of the dance contest and the gambling plots is more tired and formulaic than the slow burn of the setup deserves. The chaos and dysfunction that powered Mr. Russell's early films "Flirting With Disaster" and "Spanking the Monkey" gets pushed into the background as the story rolls on to a predictable end.
Still, the performances make "Silver Linings Playbook" worthwhile. Jacki Weaver is quietly wonderful as Pat's long-suffering mom, unsubtly named Dolores. Chris Tucker brings an authentically unhinged energy to his role as Danny, Pat's running buddy from the nut house. And Miss Lawrence steals the show as Tiffany, a brassy Philadelphia girl who doesn't let a wounded psyche get in the way of her impeccable comic timing.
TITLE: "Silver Linings Playbook"
CREDITS: Written and directed by David O. Russell; from the novel by Matthew Quick
RATING: R for language and mature themes
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS