Cooper, Lawrence Shine In David O. Russell's Latest

David O. Russell has become one of the more controversial filmmakers in recent memory, from his near-fistfight with George Clooney while filming “Three Kings” to his verbal spats with Lily Tomlin on the set of “I ♥ Huckabees.” In a post-“Silver Linings” screening question and answer session, he answered the most obtuse queries with underhanded quips – an incredulous gaze followed by “It’s all right, I guess you had to come up with something to ask me.” So, the warmth and charm of “Silver Linings Playbook” comes off as a bit of a surprise, but less so upon hearing Mr. Russell open up about his bi-polar son (who has a small part in the movie) being the inspiration in tackling this material. The result is an acutely personal film about mental illness and the toll it takes on families, anchored by two of the best performances of 2012.

The trailers have had trouble communicating the pitch of the film. Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? I’m loath to use the term “dramedy,” so I’m pleased that I don’t have to in this case. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a love story, albeit a deeply unconventional one. This unlikely romance is like cinematic bedhead – messy but real, and when it comes together into something remarkably well-coiffed, it’s sure to win you over. It’s difficult, adult material, and I’m not sure anybody but David O. Russell could have pulled it off quite as well. For someone that’s fashioned himself a rollercoaster of a career, this is as natural a fit as any.

Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, the film stars Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano, a Philadelphia native recently diagnosed as bi-polar, finishing a stint in a local mental institution. Six months prior, he caught his wife cheating on him and assaulted her fling on site. That their wedding song happened to be playing in the background only caused more emotional damage to Pat, and the song is one of the many things he has trouble coping with. Upon coming home, it’s clear that his support system leaves much to be desired. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is an obsessive Eagles fan, insisting on arranging his TV remotes a certain way to help the Eagles win and his best friend (and fellow mental patient), Danny (Chris Tucker), is being subjected to a bureaucratic nightmare in continual releases and returns to the institution.

When Pat meets a similarly emotionally stunted widow, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), their bizarre friendship becomes the focal point of the picture. Cooper and Lawrence are brilliant in essentially acting like grown-up children, but their portrayals are delicately nuanced as not to offend. They humorously point out the other’s poor social skills and understand each other in a way they don’t quite understand themselves. Pat is on a positive thinking swing (hence the title of the film) but it’s Tiffany that allows him to see the world differently than he did before. In his quest to reconcile with his wife, Tiffany becomes his right hand “man” (she’s the sister of one of Nikki’s friends), and in turn, Pat agrees to help fulfill one of Tiffany’s lifelong dreams – competing in a local ballroom dance competition.

The importance of Eagles games is integral to the plot, and the plot becomes rather convoluted towards the end of the second act when the narrative stops for a 15-minute dissertation on bets and parlays and superstitions. However, what seems like nonsense pays off wonderfully in the end, and the emotional catharsis of the finale is wonderful. The aforementioned messiness of the story is ultimately an asset, paralleling the stories of the two leads. While not saccharine, the story of transforming weakness into strength and grief into happiness is relatable and universal. It’s a challenging picture, but it runs the gamut of emotions so well that it’s nearly impossible to dislike.

I’d be remiss to overlook the music, which is as important to the film as any of its characters. Danny Elfman provides one of his most effortless and understated scores in a decade, while the producers were somehow able to secure the use of a Led Zeppelin song that gracefully accompanies a key scene. In fact, the music is appropriately scattershot but always emotionally resonant, punctuating the biggest moments without fail. “Silver Linings Playbook” is very confident filmmaking – predictable at times and with the occasional clunky scene – but along with 2010’s “The Fighter,” David O. Russell is emerging as one of the best storytellers in Hollywood. And perhaps even more interestingly, his rocky history with actors has morphed into the provocation of some of the best performances of the past five years. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 21, 2012
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriter: David O. Russell, Matthew Quick
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content/nudity)