“Silver Linings Playbook,” from off-Hollywood-center director David O. Russell, revels in its depictions of how life snaps between cringing and laughter. Yes, it will make you uncomfortable, but that’s only because it’s honest and daring in its pursuit of dramatic-comedic intensity.
Due to a violent episode fueled by his bipolar disorder, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) resides in a mental institution — until his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) decides to take him home. As Pat attempts to reconnect with his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), we find that those outside of the institution are only moments away from landing within its walls: Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) suffers from OCD and mainly relates to his estranged son through his Philadelphia Eagles mania; Dolores tears up in every other scene; and Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) strains to keep a smile as his job and family press down on him. Pat then has to deal with the moody Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Ronnie’s sister-in-law, who takes an interest in him.
The melancholy romantic situation between Tiffany and Pat degenerates into a bland and easy conclusion that refuses to address the instability of their relationship. Luckily, the rest of the film’s elements succeed. It’s a critique of normalness: apparently “normal” characters like Ronnie wallow in dysfunction, while familial discord is portrayed in deadpan fashion. This dark humor dashes away sentimentality — and so do the talented actors’ performances.
I wasn’t prepared to see Cooper become such a multifaceted character. He’s optimistic, but also awkward and violent. His wide eyes lend a childish and disturbing edge to his swings from euphoria to fury. Meanwhile, Lawrence mixes sarcasm with vulnerability in an unusually rich female role. Even when she becomes the obligatory love interest, she’s never the “manic pixie girlfriend,” that eccentric female whose sole purpose is to heal a broken man. Instead, she’s not hesitant to slap and to curse at Pat whenever he judges her issues.
Here’s the big question, though: Is this Robert De Niro’s comeback? I’ve seen him work with more bite in another dark comedy film, “The King of Comedy” (1983), but De Niro is older now; his resulting subdued approach to Pat Sr. works precisely because the character himself is a tired man, one who longs to bond with his son but can’t.
The rest of the characters and their quirks all blend into the narrative. Only Chris Tucker, who plays Danny, Pat’s friend from the mental institution, is a sore spot. He’s a super-clichéd, token black character whose only important scene involves him teaching Pat and Tiffany to dance with, as he says, “a little bit more soul.” Wow.
The actors all benefit from Matthew M. Quick’s screenplay, which is an adaptation of his eponymous novel. Quick smashes their lines together in order to strengthen the many chaotic scenes. Working alongside Russell, Quick has an Orson Welles-esque understanding of overlapping dialogue’s power.
Though it does lose momentum at its too-simple conclusion, “Silver Linings Playbook” is bold. Here is a film that doesn’t fear whiplashing the viewer between warmth and uneasiness in order to achieve a fresh, cinematic experience.