David O. Russell is the master of messed-up families, from the incestuous mother-son duo in Spanking the Monkey through the loving fraternal rivalry of The Fighter and even the band-of-brothers military guys in Three Kings. But he has never had a family so superbly cast and played as the one in Silver Linings Playbook.
Forget the too-precious concept, in which Pat (Bradley Cooper) gets out of a psychiatric hospital and only seems like the film’s major lunatic until he meets out-of-control Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). That premise doesn’t begin to suggest how firmly the film is grounded in a realistic family, or how beautifully Russell blends cinematic freshness with plain old crowd-pleasing movie making, to create a smart commercial movie.
Like the film, Cooper expertly finds a balance between being likable and making us queasy. He has moved into his parents’ home and is delusionally obsessed with getting his ex-wife back, even though he has beaten her lover half to death. Lawrence is just as convincing as she was in Winter’s Bone, but thoroughly different as the widow of a cop. She has tried sex-with-everyone as a cure for grief, and has now moved on to a new tactic: getting Pat to join her in a dance competition, despite his total lack of interest. Let’s just say she turns out to be unexpectedly wily.
Beneath that romantic-comedy formula are the film’s real strengths: Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) as Pat’s parents. Weaver is both tough and confused as the mother who will do anything to help her son and support her husband, as mystifying as that process is. And De Niro’s naturalism is miraculous, as the gambling father whose obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles borders on manic and whose anger has been passed onto his son. It’s as if De Niro had taken all those authoritarian caricatures from the Fockers movies and given them humanity and depth.
As the story hurtles toward the end, Russell knowingly plays with sure-fire Hollywood devices, including the outcome of the dance competition and a make-or-break football bet piled on top of it. And within that conventional pattern, this deceptively modest (and you couldn’t say that about the self-consciously ambitious Fighter), fully realized film doesn’t make a single false move. The title is the only clumsy thing about Silver Linings Playbook.
Take a look at the trailer, which captures the film’s deft wit.