By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Pat Solitano is bipolar, although there may be a nice guy somewhere between those extremes. In high spirits Pat is annoyingly unfiltered, saying whatever races through his mind without noticing how uncomfortable it makes people feel. Ballistic lows can be triggered by an innocuous Stevie Wonder smooth groove.
Tiffany Maxwell is a sex addict, a condition sparked by her husband's death and fanned by horn dogs at her doorstep. Tiffany's parents, with whom she lives, don't appreciate that. She's a feral sex kitten, comfortable with being used and the leverage of deciding who does it. Tiffany's trigger is any man walking by.
They're made for each other, these certifiably crazy kids at the center of David O. Russell's abrasively screwball comedy Silver Linings Playbook. Russell crafts a Baker Act romance playing loose and eccentric with the genre. The banter is spikier, wacky sidekicks have issues, too, and Pat and Tiffany's obstacles aren't fluff. The screws are tighter, and the movie is a ball.
Bradley Cooper is a tragicomic revelation as Pat, balancing the role's rapid-fire mood swings with a scruff-up of his sexy-pal Hangover image. Pat has much more than Tiffany on his disturbed mind. Being released from a mental hospital to his parents (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) is just swapping one cuckoo's nest for another. Then there's the matter that put away Pat to start with: something about finding his wife with another man, and violence Russell teases with flashbacks, eavesdrop dialogue and reactions of bystanders while Pat obsessively seeks reconciliation. That bad idea leads to Jennifer Lawrence's barbed-wire blowup doll portrayal, another step to becoming the finest actor of her generation. Tiffany talks tough, but Lawrence betrays hidden brittleness through cautious eyes and pouting lips.
Tiffany has a connection to Pat's wife. She'll pass along his beg for forgiveness if he'll be her partner in a ballroom dance competition. Call it therapy. So much of Russell's movie is unexpected that when it gets to the competition it's almost a surprise. What happens won't be spoiled, except that it's a perfect representation of Pat and Tiffany's love, and a shock to the system like the climax of Little Miss Sunshine.
The dance contest also holds importance for Pat's father, a bookie and obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan De Niro makes warm and scary. Pat Sr. doesn't realize the obvious, that his son's personal issues are rooted in his own and neither are good bets. De Niro hasn't been this instinctively funny and impulsively caring in years. He's matched in conflicted interests by Weaver as a wife too accustomed to his flaws and her son's.
Silver Linings Playbook is a bracing shaken cocktail of awkward failure and accidental success, with Pat and Tiffany making a refreshing and unlikely couple to root for. We just want them to be abnormal together, share their favorite antidepressants, maybe even dance to Stevie Wonder. Now that would be a happy ending.
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Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.