Hollywood movies, and even off-Hollywood independent films, have long encouraged us to empathize with unstable or psychologically troubled characters only if they're "kooky" for a little while, as a prelude to more palatable, normalized levels of craziness. You know. The charming kind. Happy ending, followed by a fade to a sunny shade of black.
This helps to explain why Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" never was destined to click with even a sliver of the American mainstream. A lot of filmgoers get nervous about spending money and time on serious head cases, unless they're Bond villains.
David O. Russell's pungent romantic comedy "Silver Linings Playbook" takes some risks en route to its own happy ending. And I say good for Russell for risking a protagonist who requires some patience and forgiveness.
This is Russell's first picture since his very fine film "The Fighter" two years ago. It offers many of that film's strengths: local color; working-class authenticity; a disarming mixture of moods and tonalities; and performances that are a tiny bit larger than life, but in a convivial, lived-in way.
Russell has adapted Matthew Quick's clever first novel so as to make the story's deeply embedded quirks his own, or rather, his characters' own.
For a while there in the Philadelphia-set "Silver Linings Playbook," the unruly protagonist played by Bradley Cooper, by Russell's admission, is an off-putting guy on which to hang a feel-good Oscar-season hopeful. We meet Pat Solatano (Pat Peoples in the novel) as he's finishing up eight months in a state mental health institution. Slowly we learn the circumstances: He is married to a fellow high school teacher, though Pat himself has lost his job, owing to a violent incident alluded to early on and revealed in full later.
For better and for worse Pat goes back to living with his folks, a father (Robert De Niro, excitingly, fully engaged) obsessed with the fortunes of the Philadelphia Eagles, and a mother (Australian native Jacki Weaver, right at home in the land of cheesesteak) long used to coping with hot-headed, punch-throwing temperaments. Pat longs for a reunion with his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), but there are little roadblocks, including a restraining order. Then, into this bipolar man's uncertain life, comes Tiffany, a deceased policeman's widow played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Clearly in novelistic and movie terms these two were made for each other. But her reputation in this tribal Philly neighborhood precedes her: She's a "slut," burying her grief in a string of bantamweight affairs. She and Pat become running partners (she's more like his runner-stalker), and although the feelings that pass between these two hard-shell characters are genuine, they relate in terms of pure expedience. She needs a dance partner for an upcoming ballroom competition; in exchange for his services, Tiffany will act as a go-between for Pat and Nikki, aiding his quixotic quest to get back to his elusive old life.
Like the family scenes in "The Fighter," with all that immense hair and tangled loyalties, the family scenes in "Silver Linings Playbook" are just exaggerated (or distilled) enough to work as character-based comedy, yet staying this side of caricature. De Niro's patriarch doesn't know what to make of his angry, delusional son, nor what to make of his own past behavior. They're brawlers, and if the brawls in question are Eagles-related, what better cause?
For the movie to work, which it does, Russell needed to make Pat and Tiffany more than cogs in a rom-com wheel. Happily Russell's skills as a writer and a director are roughly equal; each time, for example, Tiffany zings into the frame on another one of Pat's purposeful morning jogs, the timing is spot on. Lawrence is a remarkable actress, tough and forthright and, well, un-actressy. The "local color," the people on screen who clearly aren't professional actors, blend in with the ensemble seamlessly.
Russell's primarily concession to a popular audience, I suppose, comes in the relocation (from the book's two-thirds point to the film's climax) of the ballroom dance sequence. It's shameless in its way, but its way is both time-honored and, here, cornily effective. Russell, it must be said, goes easy on Pat's behavior, past and present. But Cooper's performance is his best yet. As is Lawrence's (the more crucial role, in fact). Chris Tucker as Pat's fellow institution resident, newly sprung, works in a different key (thank God) than he did in the "Rush Hour" films. And it really is a pleasure to be reminded of De Niro's range and instincts when he's stepping up. That range may not be expansive but it is wholly, truly expressive, much like this eccentric ode to family itself.
'Silver Linings Playbook' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and language)
Running time: 2:02