David O. Russell's movies have always been lively affairs, but none maintain the same fluid comedic inspiration of "Silver Linings Playbook." Adapting Matthew Quick's novel both as solo screenwriter and director, Russell assembles a small, bubbly cast for an unexpectedly charming romcom that frequently dances -- at one point, quite literally -- between cynicism and bittersweetness with largely winning results.
For its soul-searching trajectory, the new work has a kinship with Russell's "I Heart Huckabees," although it's also a natural follow-up to "The Fighter" in that it creates a stirring effect that calls to mind the crowdpleasing rhythms of a sports movie. As disgraced former substitute teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper) attempts to piece his life together in the wake of a mental breakdown, "Silver Linings Playbook" smartly engages with his legitimate dramas while infusing them with an upbeat spirit akin to the inspiration he seeks.
Having caught his wife (essentially a non-character for the duration of the movie) in the shower with another teacher, Pat gets shipped away for mental help. Before the story begins, he has been forced into psychiatric care; when his mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up and returns him to their Philadelphia home, he still has plenty of baggage to work out. A timebomb not unlike the drug-addicted anti-hero played by Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married," Pat faces uncertainty from every direction. Diagnosed as bipolar, he can't figure out whether he should pine for his wife's affections or respect the restraining order she has issued against him, but advice comes his way from virtually everyone he knows: His shrink (Anupam Kher) encourages him to seek new romantic opportunities, while his mopey father (Robert De Niro) grouses about Pat's naivete. In his better moments, Pat tries to be an idealist (hence the title) but can't find the right path to realize his optimistic aspirations.
Potential catharsis arrives when an old friend (John Ortiz) invites Pat over to dinner. There he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a fellow manic depressive whose breakdown involved a series of promiscuous acts in the wake of her husband's untimely death. Buried in goth makeup and dark hair, Lawrence delivers a charged, feisty turn that stands apart from her typically low key performances. Foul-mouthed and prone to loud, unwieldy tantrums, her character is a terrific embodiment of the energy Pat needs to chart a solution to his dilemma. After a few terse exchanges and mild flirtations that go hilariously wrong, Pat makes a deal with the limber Tiffany: He'll perform as her partner in a dance competition if she helps him get back in touch with his wife.
It should come as no great surprise that the time the two spend together results in a burgeoning attraction that complicates the matters at hand. But Russell directs the proceedings using a fluid approach that never indulges in rote sentimentalism without keeping the wit in check as well. Relying on close-ups and two shots that draw out the nuances of dialogue and performances, Russell gets so close to his actors that he maintains a near-theatrical sense of containment even when the action flares up. The dynamic scene in which Tiffany and Pat's family simultaneously confront him about his shortcomings finds nearly the entire ensemble yelling at each other. American comedy is rarely so intense without turning dark.
Instead, "Silver Linings Playbook" is incredibly heartfelt to a large degree because of its cast. Alongside Lawrence, De Niro stands out with a surprisingly effective turn as a middle-aged loser with good intentions that represents his best role in years. Unlike his other comedic performances, his deadpan delivery never devolves into schtick. The only gimmicky turn comes from Chris Tucker as Pat's effusive pal from the looney bin from which he keeps escaping, but he never feels out of sync with Russell's commitment to keepings the atmosphere light even as Pat's emotional trauma rings true.
Turning frantic relationship problems into breezy entertainment, Russell gives "Silver Linings Playbook" the air of a classic romcom, strengthening it with the type of sophisticated insight into human behavior that Preston Sturges might make today. While the thrilling climax involves an absurd bet and rounds things up a little too neatly, Russell never simplifies the shared neuroses that enable Pat and Tiffany to form an unlikely bond. "You are afraid to be alive," she tells him, clearly speaking from experience. The line aptly sums up the appeal of "Silver Linings Playbook," a movie that explores the fear of overcoming challenges by making it possible to laugh at them.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company releases "Silver Linings Playbook" on November 21. Given the positive Toronto reception and the timing of the release, it is likely to remain an awards season contender for all major castmembers; Russell is also a definite contender for his screenplay. Good reviews should help propel it to a decent reception in limited release.