***1/2 (out of four)
I don’t love the title. Yet I’m highly in favor of almost everything else about “Silver Linings Playbook,” which turns grief and mental illness into rich fodder for warmth, connection and comedy.
That’s not a stretch for writer-director David O. Russell (“Flirting with Disaster,” “I Heart Huckabees,” “The Fighter”), who’s experienced in the chaos and laughs that can come from family members being themselves and trying to get their lives outside the home on track. Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just arrived at his parents’ place in Philadelphia after eight months in a psychiatric facility; he thinks the wife who sold their house and left will take him back if he gets in shape and proves his new, positive outlook. That's easier said than done; she's taken out a 500-foot restraining order, and Pat, who reiterates “I'm better” as if that will be enough to convince his family that he is, admits that he has no filter. If there's an elephant in the room, Pat's always pointing to it.
Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who just lost her job and her husband. She and Pat develop a tenuous friendship based on both their familiarity with medication and their sense of lingering on the fringes of society and stability. Believing that everything troubling should be dealt with at all times, Pat constantly mentions Tiffany's late husband. He still panics, though, whenever he hears Stevie Wonder's “La Cherie Amour,” his wedding song that also was playing when he walked in on his wife and another man showering together.
Many movies play mental illness for laughs or even cuteness. Though it's funny, “Silver Linings Playbook” never laughs at the state of its characters. Pat and Tiffany’s interactions yield countless awkward moments, authentically demonstrating their uneasy balance between mind and mouth. Cooper's much better than usual, while the always-great Lawrence is particularly fantastic. She'll definitely be Oscar-nominated for this performance and could absolutely win.
“Silver Linings” also gets nice, subtle supporting work from Chris Tucker—really—as one of Pat's friends from the institution, plus vivid turns from Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro as Pat's parents. Adapting Matthew Quick's novel, Russell creates characters that are complicated and not always compatible. Though it’s more about the people than their specific conditions, the movie's equally raw and entertaining—a deep, charming story about condescension and reciprocation, and the challenge of loving yourself and others.
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