Silver Linings Playbook, an adaptation of a novel by Matthew Quick from the writer/director David O. Russell, has a lot in common with Russell’s last film, The Fighter. Both movies involve close-knit but dysfunctional families living in white, working-class enclaves. (The Fighter takes place in Lowell, Mass., and Silver Linings in Philly.) And both have setups that sound conventional, even sentimental, on paper: a pair of boxing brothers, one on the rise, one in decline. A bipolar ex-high-school teacher struggling to rebuild his life after a stint in a mental hospital.
But Russell has a way of creating such rich and detailed worlds in his movies that the stories unfolding within those worlds seem almost tangential. Silver Linings Playbook has its flaws, and they’re not insignificant ones: The final resolution of two separate plotlines hinges on a series of dubious coincidences, and the lead character, who appears in virtually every scene, is (I’m almost sure) gravely miscast. But it’s a movie you’re glad to inhabit for a full two hours, because it never stops surprising you—it’s lopsided and spotty, but it’s alive in a way that suddenly makes you remember to what degree most Hollywood movies aren’t.
“That’s very, very manic indeed,” observes fellow inmate Danny (Chris Tucker) of the erratic behavior of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) on the day he’s released from the psych ward. The same could be said of the director’s ever-mobile camera, which wanders, and sometimes darts, wherever it likes: As Pat nervously assures his shrink he’ll do nothing to violate the restraining order against him, there’s a quick tilt down to his hands in his lap as he fiddles with his wedding ring.
Pat’s been put away for eight months after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death upon discovering their affair. His all-forgiving mother (the great Australian actress Jacki Weaver) has arranged to get him released early—his doctors don’t quite feel he’s ready yet, but as Pat and his mother keep assuring his skeptical dad (Robert De Niro), “The court says it’s fine.” Pat moves into his parents’ attic and resolves to embark on a self-improvement protocol he picked up in group therapy at the psych ward (hence the “playbook” of the title). He’ll read the great books, go jogging (clad in a garbage bag, for maximum perspiration) every day, and eventually, he’s convinced, win back his estranged wife. Pat is just crazy enough for the audience to understand that this reunion probably won’t happen, and definitely shouldn’t. But as grating as his delusional positive affirmations can be, Pat’s trying so hard that we can’t help but wish something good would happen for him—even, especially, when he goes off his meds and is nearly recommitted after a fight with his parents gets physical.
At a disastrous dinner party hosted by a well-meaning friend, Pat meets up with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the recently widowed wife of a local cop who’s nearly as unstable as he is: She’s just lost her job after sleeping with every single person in the office and isn’t above using that fact as a pickup line. When Pat rejects Tiffany’s advances with an admonishment about learning to value herself more highly, she’s offended but also intrigued: She starts to stake him out on his daily jogs, appearing out of nowhere in running clothes and chasing him down the street, all the while crankily insisting that she only wants a friend.
Tiffany and Pat’s volatile, push-me-pull-you flirtation proceeds alongside a separate storyline about Pat’s father’s dangerous new career as a bookmaker. Pat Sr. is an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive with a gambling problem: When he begs his son to stay home and watch Eagles games by his side, it’s in part a father’s desire to connect, in part a superstitious belief that Pat’s presence on the couch, holding a green Eagles handkerchief folded just so, will bring luck to his beloved “Birds.” Temperamentally, Pat Sr. isn’t so far from the comically macho dad De Niro played in the Meet the Parents series, but he lets us see the raw neediness and vulnerability just beneath that well-defended exterior. It’s in the football-watching scenes, full of overlapping dialogue and lovingly precise domestic details (like the “crabby snacks and homemades” Mrs. Solitano ritually prepares on big game days) that the movie is at its roomy, chaotic best.
Silver Linings Playbook builds up so much audience goodwill that it’s hard to begrudge it even its worst flaw: the presence of Bradley Cooper as the emotionally fragile and frequently off-putting hero. I can see why Russell thought to cast Cooper: He’s a supremely relaxed actor who excels at conveying expansive self-confidence (a quality he also used to good effect in Limitless). But when Pat’s not having a full-blown manic episode, his defining traits (and his appeal, especially to the chronically mistreated Tiffany) become harder to discern. Cooper can shift convincingly between extremes of euphoria and menace, but it’s in the gray zones in between that a character is built; especially in his one-on-one scenes with Lawrence, he struggles to convey finer shades of feeling. I would have loved to see what a slightly rougher-edged, more introspective actor—like Russell’s longtime muse Mark Wahlberg, who was originally attached to the role—might have brought to it. I walked out of the movie glad that Pat Solitano had found some measure of peace and well-being but not quite sure that I either understood or liked him.
It’s quite possible that Russell (whose tendency to get into screaming matches on set has earned him the crew nickname “David O. Asshole”) doesn’t want us to either know or like Pat too well: The director clearly identifies with his charmless, compulsively honest hero. In fact, Silver Linings Playbook could be read as a brief on behalf of screaming matches: The characters are forever yelling harsh truths into one another’s faces then mutually benefiting from the exchange. Though I hope I never have Russell for a boss (or a marriage counselor), there’s something perversely romantic about his portrait of family dysfunction: Thank God there’s one place in the world where everyone is as crazy as you.