It speaks to just how good David O. Russell is at portraying raw, high-strung sincerity that Silver Linings Playbook is able to walk a line between likable and tolerable despite a premise the reeks of quirky bullshit. In addition to its frequently cutesy treatment of mental illness, the movie features a love interest who instantly latches onto and pursues the film's mess of a hero like she read the script in advance and was assured things will eventually work out.
Based on a novel by Matthew Quick and adapted for the screen by Russell himself, Silver Linings Playbook is an unfussy, rambling crowd-pleaser that recalls elements of the filmmaker's past work: the New Age coachings of the existential detectives in I Heart Huckabees, the back-in-your-childhood-home set-up of Spanking the Monkey and the chaotic regional family flavor of The Fighter.
More than any of that, though, the movie brings to mind the leaked videos of Russell having a meltdown in front of Lily Tomlin on the set of Huckabees, pacing back and forth, incensed and out of control. Russell seems, from all accounts, like a man who knows his way around mood swings and wild bursts of emotion. His very apparent ability to empathize with his protagonist in Silver Linings Playbook while allowing him to behave in some ugly ways both grounds the film and, at times, proves problematic. Russell is more generous with his hero than he is with those who live with and love the guy.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) is a former teacher back from eight months in a Baltimore mental institution, The state-provided treatment he's receiving for a previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder is part of a plea bargain stemming from his violent reaction to the discovery that his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) had been fooling around with another man. Pat has talked his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) into letting him come home against his doctor's recommendation, and with Nikki having sold their house and secured a restraining order against him, he moves into the attic of his Pennsylvania childhood home and attempts to get his life in order.
Despite having embraced a new fitness regimen (he's rarely dressed in anything other than workout gear, with the occasional addition of a garbage bag-like vest to stimulate sweating) and a garbled but deeply felt set of self-help principles involving finding silver linings, maintaining positivity and the affirmation "excelsior," Pat's not doing that well. He isn't taking his meds, he unapologetically bursts into his parents' room at four in the morning to complain about the ending of A Farewell to Arms and he's fixated on how he's going to prove himself to Nikki and win her back, despite all the evidence that she's done with him.
Cooper's slippery charm makes him an unexpected and imperfect fit for the role of Pat. He's great at portraying his character's utter conviction in his delusions and his enveloping rage when something pushes him over the edge. But, as devoted as he is to the role, Cooper does less well showing the character's filter-free, no pretense appeal. To put it another way, Cooper tends to get cast as a handsome jerk for a reason, and given the oafish way he reacts to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) when they first meet in the movie, it's not easy to see why she would be so instantly and strongly attracted to him. She literally begins chasing him down the street when he goes for runs until he starts spending time with her.
Tiffany, who is the widowed sister of the wife (Julia Stiles) of Pat's friend Ronnie (John Ortiz), has some instability and past tragedy of her own to deal with, but Pat doesn't want to play reluctant outcasts with her. He is determined to become the upright citizen he thinks Nikki wants.
Lawrence imbues this potential (okay, likely) manic pixie dream girl with complexity and heart, showing her as someone who's unwilling to let Pat push her around or push her away — though aside from Tiffany's loneliness, Lawrence is given little to indicate why her character feels compelled to try so hard with this erratic new arrival in her life. She enlists Pat as her partner in a dance competition, and slowly begins to win him over as well as his family, which is headed up by a skeptical Robert De Niro as Pat Sr., a football obsessive and bookie whose superstitious beliefs feed into his OCD.
The glorious mess that is Pat's family and community is the warmest, funniest aspect of Silver Linings Playbook, from Dolores' continual preparation of "crabby snacks and homemades" to the earnest but panicked Ronnie and the repeated arrivals and subsequent reclaimings by police of Pat's friend from the hospital Danny (Chris Tucker). De Niro, showing uncharacteristic (for his recent work) signs of life, is downright wonderful as Pat Sr., channeling his fondness and hope for his wayward son into an insistence that Pat watch Eagles games with him because he brings good luck.
Pat isn't as lovable as the filmmaker seems to find him, and sentiments like the one expressed by Danny that the mentally ill might "know something you don't know" come cloyingly close to suggesting Silver Linings Playbook believes mood disorders to be a gift. The tangible details of the town and its supporting characters are anything but saccharine, however, and when the film takes time and indulges in them, it creates a sense of place you don't want to leave behind.
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