Stress is the engine that makes David O. Russell’s comedies go, like a Bunsen burner set under unstable human chemistry. It’s true of his debut feature, Spanking The Monkey, with its escalating sexual frustration and Freudian weirdness; it’s true of Flirting With Disaster and I [Heart] Huckabees, which make screwball comedy out of hyper-neurotic characters; and it’s true of Three Kings, which spins a Treasure Of The Sierra Madre adventure out of the gnawing boredom and anxiety of serving in the Gulf. His movies are about the quest for some kind of psychological equilibrium, some way for his characters to settle their nerves and make themselves whole again. And when they get there, it’s a triumph.
Based on Matthew Quick’s novel, Russell’s new film, Silver Linings Playbook, is about a couple of head cases whose romantic chemistry stabilizes their brain chemistry. It’s the perfect material for Russell, who not only deals perceptively with the dizzying swings of manic depression, but makes it the fabric of a big, generous, happy-making ensemble comedy. Pushing his usual smug cheeriness to the brink of derangement, Bradley Cooper stars as a former substitute teacher who’s just spent the last seven months in a mental institution for assaulting his wife’s lover. He’s released almost certainly too soon to his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in suburban Philadelphia, and he begins obsessing unhealthily about straightening up and winning his wife back. When he meets Jennifer Lawrence, a young widow with a similarly absent social filter and compatible antipsychotics, the two enter into uneasy friendship premised on an arrangement. If Cooper partners with Lawrence for a dance competition, she will help him get back in touch with his wife.
It isn’t entirely insulting to say that Silver Linings Playbook, while sweet and immensely satisfying, is also full of beans. There’s real-crazy and there’s movie-crazy, and Russell gets what he needs from the former (which is really hard to resolve) in order to settle on the latter (which is really easy to resolve)—ultimately, mental illness serves as the vehicle that gets these two quirky characters to the crowd-pleasing place the film needs them to go. Yet Silver Linings Playbook is pleasing, with vibrant performances from its leads and about a dozen well-sketched characters up and down the ensemble, including Chris Tucker as a cheerful flight risk from the ward, Anupam Kher as Cooper’s outwardly successful but secretly unraveling best friend, and De Niro, who looks as engaged as he’s been in years as Cooper’s father, a superstitious bookie with a love for the Eagles akin to Anjelica Huston’s Buffalo Bills psychosis in Buffalo ’66. Russell brings these high-strung characters together in a harmony of comic dysfunction that few other filmmakers could achieve without the film falling into chaos. He may be guilty of angling toward a crowd-pleasing finish, but resistance is futile.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Silver Linings Playlist’s Spoiler Space.