David O. Russell's movies often feel like a visit from a cantankerous relative. After all, a large chunk of both "The Fighter" and "Flirting With Disaster" is basically people standing around shouting at each other. His movies are marked by characters that are wounded and not yet wholly formed, who inevitably clash, loudly, with parents who are just as screwed up as their kids. With another director, that formula might make you want to flee from the screen, but Russell has the ability to walk the line between grating and ingratiating. He not only keeps you engaged, but also wins you over. Though his latest film, "Silver Linings Playbook," is his most accessible, awards-friendly movie yet, Russell still gives the movie plenty of the sharp edges.
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The movie centers on Pat (Bradley Cooper), a 30-something guy with bipolar disorder whose life comes crashing down around him when he discovers his wife Nikki canoodling with a colleague in the shower. After beating his spouse's paramour to a pulp, Pat gets committed. While he still holds out hope for reconciliation, she files a restraining order. The movies opens with Pat getting sprung from a mental hospital early by his mother, who quickly realizes that she might have bitten off more than she can chew. Pat is a restless ball of manic energy, prone to hurling books out the window and ranting about Hemingway at 4 a.m. Of course, his house isn't exactly a model of mental health. His father (Robert De Niro) is an obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan with a violent streak himself.
When he meets a young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) with some profound problems of her own, he recognizes, however reluctantly, that they are kindred spirits: While at a dinner party, they bond over all the different meds that they've been prescribed. She offers to sleep with him within an hour of meeting him, but he refuses, stating that he's a married man. This is a recurring problem for Tiffany. As she admits later, to Pat's horror, she was recently fired from her job for having sex with every single one of her co-workers. "I was very depressed," Tiffany explains.
The beginning half of the movie is brittle and emotionally raw. Russell doesn't shy away from presenting his characters' obvious faults, yet he gives them enough humanity to keep them from becoming unsympathetic. As a performer, I've never quite seen the "Sexiest Man Alive" appeal of Cooper, but he does a fine job in a role that could have either been self-indulgent or sentimental. The movie, however, really belongs to Lawrence, who proves once and for all that she can do more than play a tough-as-nails teen from the backcountry, as seen in both "Winter's Bone" and "The Hunger Games." In this movie, she gives a remarkably layered performance as a woman who, at first blush, has it much more together than Pat, but is far more fragile that she lets on. As written, her character might fall arguably under the manic pixie dream-girl category, with an emphasis on manic, but Lawrence flushes the character out so that Tiffany feels very real.
The delicate, uneasy tone at the beginning of the movie veers into overt comedy, culminating in a dance-off that is as goofy and it is moving. That might throw some viewers, but I gladly went along with the ride. Even though "Silver Linings Playbook" is a movie about mental illness, family dysfunction, and the Philadelphia Eagles, it still just might be the best date-movie of the season.
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See a clip from 'Silver Linings Playbook':