While his filmography may seem diverse, there's actually a common theme running through every David O. Russell film — people yelling at one another. It happens in I Heart Huckabees as politically aware fireman Mark Wahlberg argues dinner with a family of strangers and The Fighter as Amy Adams has to deal with boxing meathead Mark Wahlberg's gaggle of bitchy sisters. You may think it's just a Wahlberg thing, but behind the camera Russell is infamous for going nuclear on Lily Tomlin and getting into a fistfight with George Clooney. His newest film, Silver Linings Playbook gives its characters a lot of excuses to yell at one another.
Our main character is Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former high school teacher with bi-polar disorder who just got out of a state mental health institution as a plea bargain for beating the crap out of the guy who was sleeping with his wife. Cooper gets a lot of hate as one of those people in Hollywood who are too attractive to be taken seriously or even liked by the bitter online critics who look nothing like Bradley Cooper, but if anything you're like me* you remember him as the hapless wiener reporter from Alias and are fully aware he's very susceptible to torture. As Pat, Cooper's amazingly cast — a well-meaning meathead from working class roots, prone to mood swings and saying the first thing that pops into his head regardless of appropriateness. He's not necessarily meant to be likable, but he is meant to be understandable as he quickly embarks on a self-improvement kick upon his return, choosing to see the "silver linings" in life, rigorously exercising and attempting to read every book his wife is teaching that semester in the deluded hopes that he can win her back.
Soon he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a headstrong young woman with baggage and a dead husband who ends up in a mutual infatuation with Pat. Lawrence quickly proved herself an amazing actress with Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games, and here she's just as intense but decidedly less hardened — more of the kind of intensity that comes from overcompensating. She's an exposed, damage nerve, but she's keeping it together, using amateur dancing as an outlet. Her sister is friends with Pat's wife, so the pair form a mutually beneficial relationship where he serves as Tiffany's partner in the impending dance competition in exchange for her passing on letters to his wife.
Then there's Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), a retiree who makes bets on Philadelphia Eagles games to fund a restaurant he wants to open, while superstitiously positioning his son to help win games. It's a great performance from an actor who in recent years has coasted on his prior legendary roles while taking paychecks to portray Somebody's Grandpa. Here, DeNiro perfectly plays an obsessive, anger-prone man who's clearly the father of our main character.
Pat Sr. isn't alone in this movie — pretty much everyone else likes football too much. Silver Linings rounds out its cast with Jacki Weaver as Pat's understanding but frustrated mother, John Ortiz as Pat's unhappy buddy, Julia Stiles as said buddy's put-together, perfectionist wife (and Tiffany's sister), and a rare Chris Tucker performance. While he's become "that really shrill guy from the Rush Hour movies who had to follow Kanye West during that Katrina telethon" he's actually quite warm and funny as Pat's buddy without any baggage.
I've spent four paragraphs on the actors because they're what make Silver Linings Playbook worth watching. Like Russell's previous film, The Fighter, it's the performances and a script that treats the characters as humans as opposed to chess pieces that bring the film to life — that keep it from becoming a formulaic romantic comedy. Eventually the football world and the dancing world collide to a point where the big dance competition decides the very fate of pop's restaurant, but even that is handled fairly well.
There's a really big moment of proof that you can make this kind of movie without being cloying — and this is a spoiler — Pat's biggest trigger is Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amor," the song that was playing during the fateful day he beat a man within an inch of his life. A hack screenwriter would use that song during Pat and Tiffany's climactic dance competition performance, creating this big metaphor as Pat breaks down one of the biggest walls in his recovery. The film even seems like it's setting up for that big moment, but it never happens. That's "Jean Claude Van Damme quitting cocaine cold turkey" levels of restraint.
Silver Linings Playbook is enjoyable, funny, sometimes cringe-inducing but ultimately kind of slight — hardly what we expect from the often incendiary David O. Russell. I'd return to Three Kings and Huckabees at the drop of a hat, but this one feels less encouraging of repeat viewings. It seems like the awards season love for The Fighter a couple years ago is sending him down a more populist, middlebrow avenue, which would be a shame because we already have a Jason Reitman.
*Meaning exclusively "You watched at least one episode of Alias in your life"
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.