With his latest movie, Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) delivers his most mainstream film to date in this adaptation of Matthew Quick‘s novel of the same name about a teacher (Bradley Cooper) who moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) after spending eight months in a mental institution. At times I think Russell can get too cute for his own good (see I Heart Huckabees), but Silver Linings provides the director the kind of manic characters he enjoys while still forcing him draw within the lines. The result is one of the year’s best films.
Our story begins with the release of Pat (Cooper) from his stint in the loony bin after brutally assaulting a fellow teacher who he discovers sleeping with his wife (Brea Bee). Armed with medication he refuses to take and an optimistic attitude of winning back his wife (despite being still haunted by her infidelity), putting his life back together, and looking for the silver lining in every bad situation, Pat begins his slow (and rocky) road to recovery.
The film, like so many of Russell’s movies, is filled with oddball supporting characters. Chris Tucker pops up from time to time (and at least once too often) in a recurring role as a friend Pat met from the institution who keeps breaking out to see how Pat is doing back in the real world. Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) seems to have his act together with a good job, wife (Julia Stiles), and newborn baby, but as we see Ronnie’s a powder keg of stress waiting to explode. We also see the Pat’s overly intense obsessive-compulsive father whose decision-making skills have far more to do with luck and sending good juju the Philadelphia Eagles way rather than any rational thinking.
It’s through a welcome back dinner with Ronnie and his wife that Pat meets the equally damaged and troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). The pair immediately bond over their experience with shrinks and a variety of prescription medication. Obsessed with talking to his wife, who still has a 500ft. restraining order in place since her husband nearly beat her lover to death in front of her eyes, Pat enlists the help of Tiffany who agrees to deliver a letter to Nikki on the condition he helps her fulfill one of her dreams as well by competing with her in a dancing competition.
The characters and situations that make up Silver Linings Playbook are fairly typical archetypes and in the hands of another director and cast the movie would be instantly forgettable. When they’re making films like The Hangover Part II and The Hunger Games it’s easy to forget both Cooper and Lawrence have some legitimate acting chops which the script allows both of them to showcase. De Niro is also terrific as a father whose obsessions keep him from truly telling his son how he feels.
Given its rather predictable plot, Silver Linings Playbook is better than it has any right to be. Bolstered by great lead and supporting performances, David O. Russell carefully exposes a level of complexity to these characters and situations, in both big and small ways, that makes us not only care what happens to them but root for each of them to succeed. Sure, it’s messy and crazy, but so is life.