With his first two pictures—1994's Spanking the Monkey and 1996's Flirting With Disaster—director David O. Russell showed a mastery of familial discomfort, bringing to life the hilarity of tense situational extremes that most directors would milk for melodrama. In his mainstream work—the excellent boxing drama The Fighter and war-film deconstruction Three Kings—he demonstrated a keen eye for the comic potential of the self-destruction of the family unit.
With Silver Linings Playbook, adapted from Matthew Quick's novel, Russell revisits these themes and emerges with one of filmdom's funniest stories of crippling manic depression. If Frank Capra made an R-rated flick for the Prozac generation, it would look like this.
The film follows the social reacclimation of Philly schoolteacher Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is institutionalized after beating his wife's lover half to death, and is released into the custody of his coddling mother (Jacki Weaver) and his bookie dad (Robert De Niro), himself suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Pat forms an unlikely relationship with widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who doggedly tries to win his affections despite the fact that he's set on winning back the unwilling wife. The two forge a close friendship when Tiffany cons him into entering a dance competition in exchange for helping him contact the ex.
That all sounds well and cute, but Silver Linings strikes a delicate balance. This is a film that invites uncomfortable giggles at mental illness before exploding into frightening reality, as when a meet-cute segues into a terrifying domestic incident, with Cooper delivering an Oscar-caliber breakdown set to a Led Zeppelin song.
Cooper's career-best performance is augmented by Lawrence's. But it's De Niro, as a loving dad with a history of violence, who shines most. After a decade of dreck, his age and experience lend a crushing and funny layer to an already marvelously dense story.
The film does get a little saccharine toward the finale, but sometimes that's not a bad thing. As a family drama, it's top tier. As a romance, it's blissfully unconventional. And as a foulmouthed ode to classic Hollywood, well, Capra would fucking approve. R.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: Silver Linings Playbook opens Friday at Clackamas, Bridgeport, Fox Tower.