A quick glance at the plot for Silver Linings Playbook and you’d be forgiven for expecting yet another excruciating Hollywood romantic comedy, the kind that Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston seem to find themselves in.
What should make this film even worse is that its central figure Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar disorder, which normally results in the sort of turned-up-to-11 manic performance that cries out for an Academy Award.
The fact that Silver Linings Playbook manages to avoid the trap doors and skirts around the clichés is largely down to the mercurial David O. Russell, who adapts and directs this smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age from Matthew Quick’s short story.
Pat is diagnosed after attacking his wife’s lover in the shower and, after eight months in a psychiatric institution is released into the care of his OCD-afflicted, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) and long-suffering mother Dolores (Australian actress Jacki Weaver). Without a job or a wife, Pat is determined to rebuild his life, believing that if he gets fit and stays positive he can save his marriage.
At a friend’s dinner party he meets the self-destructive Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has tried to overcome her grief at the death of her husband by sleeping around. Tiffany offers Pat a deal – she’ll help him reconnect with his wife as long as he becomes his dance partner for an upcoming ballroom competition.
Russell knows the rom-com tropes – Pat and Tiffany are clearly made for each other – but in the best tradition of those classic screwball comedies, all the fun comes in how these two broken souls finally realise what the audience have known all along.
Crucially, the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is fantastic. They fizz off each other like a pair of firecrackers, from the amusing dinner party when they swap anti-depressant stories like Christmas cards to the sultry dance sequences.
The two are equally tactless, whether it be Pat asking Tiffany how many people she slept with in her office before being fired, or Tiffany saving Pat the bother of reading Lord of the Flies by summarising it for him and throwing the book away, annoyed he’s only reading it because it’s on the high school syllabus his estranged wife is teaching (reflecting an earlier scene when Pat throws a copy of A Farewell to Arms through the window because he’s disgusted with the pessimistic ending).
This is no smooth ride to love of course; Tiffany attacks Pat for being “afraid to be alive” and feels increasingly used by her dance partner as nothing more than a tool in which to win back his spouse. Pat feels guilty for getting closer to Tiffany and suffers a number of violent bipolar episodes, including one in the reception of his therapist Dr Patel (Bollywood favourite Anupam Kher).
Pat Snr, meanwhile, faces his own struggles. In one moving scene, beautifully played by De Niro, he has a moment of guilty realisation that father and son are perhaps more alike than he thought and tries to find some common ground over their shared love of the Eagles.
Cooper has never been better, which admittedly isn’t saying a lot as his output, until now, has hardly been stellar. He isn’t afraid to make Pat unlikeable and restrains himself from falling back on the pretty-boy mugging he’s been guilty of in the past.
After years of picking up the pay cheque, it’s great to see De Niro back on form. For once, he looks fully engaged and appears to enjoy playing opposite Cooper again (following the patchy Limitless).
In lesser hands, the role of Tiffany could have become unbearably kooky or flaky. Apparently Russell originally had Zooey Deschanel in mind for the part, so one can only imagine how painful that would have been to watch.
Instead, Lawrence forgoes the crazy and brings a vulnerability to the role that’s refreshing to see. Instead of relying on a pout or a flailing of the limbs, she does a lot of her work with her eyes, expressing confidence, defensiveness or pain in a single look.
The exaggerated family dynamic and pent up emotions bring to mind Russell’s previous film The Fighter, but while that film somewhat lost its way, here he maintains a sharp focus and sweeps you along so persuasively that come the final dance contest you’ll be willing them on along with the rest.