Writer-director David O. Russell had a commercial and industry breakthrough with his last film, 2010's The Fighter, which garnered multiple Oscar nominations and became the filmmaker's biggest box-office hit.
Russell's follow-up, Silver Linings Playbook, has some similarities to The Fighter. Both are city-based stories (The Fighter was Boston; Playbook is Philadelphia) about dysfunctional families. But the new film, based on a novel by Matthew Quick, is less a genre picture. Instead, it's a fruitful return to the style of shaggy, neurotic comedy — such as Spanking the Monkey or especially Flirting With Disaster — that launched Russell's career.
Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano, a bipolar former high school teacher who, at the outset, is released from a mental hospital following an initially mysterious violent episode that landed him there. Pat returns to live with his parents — nervous, willfully optimistic mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and skeptical father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro). Pat's reentry is complicated when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the recently widowed and almost as troubled sister of Pat's best friend's wife, and a wary friendship-cum-courtship ensues.
What follows from there isn't easily synopsized, and narrative is secondary to performance and social detail anyway. At its best, Silver Linings Playbook has the spirit of a classic screwball comedy, with attractive leads engaged in complicated flirtation amid crazy plot twists and colorful supporting players. But it transforms this old style into something contemporary, suffused with broken families, name-brand medications, and the National Football League.
The casting of Cooper sometimes feels a little off. While he's more than game, he's almost too hunky for the role. When he dons an Eagles jersey, he seems like a player, not like a high school teacher as super-fan. Lawrence, in her first major adult role after the indie breakout in Winter's Bone and commercial breakthrough in The Hunger Games, shows a surer hand, ably balancing tough and tender. And Weaver, an Australian actress who was an Oscar nominee for the recent crime-family flick Animal Kingdom, and De Niro, giving perhaps his most purposeful performance since 2000's Meet the Parents (and in the same gruffly comic tone) are well-matched.
At times, Silver Linings Playbook reminds me of John Cassavetes' ostensibly more serious '70s indie touchstone A Woman Under the Influence, where the line between those who are thought to be mentally unstable and those who are not is more a matter of official declaration than reality. That's a difficult tightrope to walk in a screwball romance, and Russell's film wobbles in spots. But it's still an unusually homey and enjoyable modern Hollywood comedy.
Silver Linings Playbook
Opening Wednesday, November 21st