There’s a scene about midway through David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) where Bradley Cooper’s Pat and Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany – as a pair of troubled characters with mental health problems – are having a monumentally bad date. Pat chases after a furious Tiffany, only to be stopped by the waitress (“Steady on, Mr. Oatmeal) with the bill. Whenever there’s a risk of a scene running off into clichéd melodrama, it’s brought up short by a moment of realistic detail, turning what could have just been an Oscar-baiting mental health drama into a compelling, clever and oddly hilarious character study.
Cooper goes straight as Pat, a man with serious psychological problems, recovering from his divorce at his parent’s house. He’s just been liberated, against medical advice, from a clinic by his mother (Jacki Weaver) and has decided to become pro-active in his own recovery, renouncing his meds, getting fit by running around in bin bags and reading everything on his ex’s high school reading list. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro), has a few issues of his own, earning his living by running a betting book on football. Lawrence, meanwhile, plays young widow Tiffany, who presents Pat with the opportunity to communicate with his former wife but who asks him to participate in a dance competition in return.
Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, O. Russell channels the same slice of life realism from The Fighter (2010) and employs his massively talented ensemble task to great effect. Cooper stakes out a claim to being taken seriously post-The Hangover; Jennifer Lawrence deservedly picked up an Oscar and De Niro gives his best performance for years. Even Chris Tucker rises above punchable, as a fellow patient of Pat’s, obsessed with his own hair.
The quirkiness that characterised O. Russell’s earlier films – Three Kings (1999) and the under-rated oddity I Heart Huckabees (2004) in particular – is here tamped down to a minimum, but there’s still an edginess and a lurking sense of menace, typified by local cop Officer Keogh (Dash Mihok) who pops up whenever anything gets too loud or too crazy. Silver Linings Playbook is at its heart a ‘feel-good’ movie, and as such it works, but it’s also the kind of ‘feel-good’ which admits the possibility of feeling really, really bad.