'Silver Linings Playbook': A Clear-Headed Comedy About Mental Illness

With quirk and heart, David O. Russell's exceptional new film showcases the emerging talents of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

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The Weinstein Company

There was a moment, as the 20th century prepared to give way to the 21st, when it appeared American film might be on the cusp of a breakthrough era, with a handful of young (or at least young-ish) directors coming into their own at once. Wes Anderson had just given us Rushmore; M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense; Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia; and David O. Russell, the eldest of the bunch at 41, Three Kings. All seemed to harbor the potential for greatness.

In the years since, each one has taken his detours, but with the exception of Shyamalan—whose steep and as yet unbroken descent has been more unnerving than any of his films—all look to be back on track. In the case of Russell, his post-2000 wanderings carried him from the overkill idiosyncrasy of "I [Heart] Huckabees" to the relatively conventional satisfactions of The Fighter. With his latest film, Silver Linings Playbook, he has again recalibrated, and achieved the quirky yet poignant balance of his best early work.

Thirtysomething Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is returning home to live with his parents in Philadelphia following an eight-month stint in a mental institution for being "undiagnosed bipolar, with mood swings and weird thinking brought on by stress." This belated diagnosis was reached following his less-than-collegial response to finding his wife—like him, a school teacher—taking a shower with one of their colleagues.

During his time away, therapy and medication have transmuted his rage into a kind obsessively oversold optimism. "Look at my eyes," he reassures his parents. "See how clear they are!" Though he's lost his job, his marriage, and his home, he's convinced that their restoration is right around the corner. "This is what I learned at the hospital," he explains ecstatically. "If you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining."

Pat spends his days exercising fervently—he jogs suburban streets wearing a trash bag to "help with the sweat"—watching Eagles games with his bookmaking OCD father (Robert De Niro), and working his way through his estranged wife's class reading list in preparation for an anticipated reconciliation. (This last activity proves less than therapeutic when he takes the pitiless conclusion of A Farewell to Arms rather too much to heart at four o'clock in the morning.)

Over dinner at a friend's house, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a fellow veteran of psychiatric intervention who has also returned to the refuge of the parental nest. (Pat gets an attic; Tiffany, a finished garage.) She quickly proves the yin to his yang, her outlook as dark as his is phosphorescent. The two begin circling warily, alternatingly bonding over their shared pharmaceutical experience and bickering about which one of them is "crazier." As Pat protests, "It's just not right lumping you and I together!"

But lumped together they are, whether intersecting one another's jogging routes with stalker-like obstinacy or sharing a dinner of raisin bran and tea. It is during the latter that Tiffany reveals that, after her cop husband died, she lost her job by sleeping with everyone in the office. Pat is aghast yet intrigued, "All of them?" Soon a deal is struck: She will smuggle a message to his wife through multiple restraining orders, if he will agree to dance with her at an upcoming competition. All of this is incumbent, of course, on Pat's surviving repeated iterations of "Ma Cherie Amour"—one of his "triggers" and a song that recurs so inescapably during the film that it might tip anyone toward homicidal mania.

Adapted by Russell from the novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook teeters artfully between hilarity and violence, tenderness and remorse. As he did in early works such as Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, the director profitably mines deep veins of insecurity and compulsion. Call it Love in the Time of Bipolar Disorder. And if the final act—featuring a high-stakes dance-off oddly reminiscent of The Fighter—is a touch rushed and tidy, this is a film that has earned viewers' indulgence.

The cast, which also features Jacki Weaver, a mercifully low-key Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, and Anupum Kher, is uniformly excellent. De Niro, in particular, offers perhaps his best work in years as Pat's on-the-edge, meticulously superstitious dad.

But the film ultimately belongs to its leads, both of whom deliver eye-opening performances. It's always been evident that Lawrence can act—never more so than with her star-making role in 2010's Winter's Bone. The revelation she offers in Silver Linings Playbook, which filmed when she was just 21, is that she has graduated from playing wiser-than-their-years youngsters to full cinematic adulthood.

I confess that I thought Cooper, by contrast, had reached the limits of his lupine charm in the Hangover movies and He's Just Not That Into You and The A-Team, that his would be a career of playing rakes and best friends and faithless husbands. (His last dramatic role, in The Words, did nothing to challenge this assumption.) But in Silver Linings Playbook, he proves me wrong, displaying a wholly unanticipated wit and vulnerability. While Lawrence's precocity is remarkable, it's Cooper who offers the true epiphany: It's never too late to grow up.