If David O. Russell pulls anything off in Silver Linings Playbook — an almost-comedy about a bipolar high-school teacher who goes off the deep end and isn't sure how to climb back — it's this: He refuses to make mental illness adorable.
When Bradley Cooper's Pat, recently sprung from eight months in a mental hospital, walks into his doctor's office and hears the strains of the song that accompanied his breakdown — it happens to be Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" — his impossibly blue eyes seem to spiral into tiny pin dots, like those of a tortured bull. He barks at the receptionist: "Is that song really playing?" And for a moment, we don't know if we're hearing it for sure, either, or if it's simply an imagined sound that's been filtered through the exhausted coffee grounds of his brain.
Moments like that work beautifully in Silver Linings Playbook; in fact, it's more a movie of moments than a story with anything resembling a narrative drive. (Russell also wrote the screenplay, adapting it from Matthew Quick's novel of the same name.)
As the movie opens, Pat is being sprung from the hospital a little early, thanks to the intercession of his cautiously supportive mother (Jacki Weaver) and seemingly against the better judgment of his less-supportive dad (Robert De Niro).
He's feeling better, or so he thinks, and he's eager to get back to real life, although his hopes for that life are stupendously unrealistic. He believes he can rebuild his marriage, even though his estranged wife has taken out a restraining order against him. (His discovery of her extramarital affair instigated the act of violence that got him put away in the first place.)
Pat can't be swayed from his mission to get his wife back, not even when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the tough-cookie sister-in-law of one of his closest friends. (In a stroke of cockeyed genius, Russell has cast Julia Stiles and Lawrence as siblings, and with their moon-shaped faces and alert, inquisitive eyes, they're like a pair of take-no-prisoners cherubim.)
But Tiffany only looks tough: Her husband, a cop, has recently died, and in her extreme grief she's turned to sex — lots of it — as a coping mechanism. Pat takes one look at her adorably curvy figure, kitted out in semi-Goth clothes, and falls hard. Though of course, he doesn't know it yet.
That setup is easy enough to buy. But in the movie's last half, the plotting begins to make less sense: Pat's wife re-enters the scene in a wholly unbelievable way, and one particular element of Pat's recovery hinges on a ridiculous sports-related bet — that's where the title's "playbook" angle figures in, and it's not a particularly convincing fit.
But even when you can't fully believe in the plot of Silver Linings Playbook, or in its occasionally self-helpy dialogue, it's easy enough to believe in the actors' faces. De Niro plays your stock disapproving dad, but with an OCD twist. He may not bear much physical resemblance to Cooper's Pat, but his nervous mannerisms suggest that the apple hasn't fallen so far from the tree.
Pat is a royal pain in the neck, to his family and to almost everyone else: Even his mother, played marvelously by Weaver, struggles with the task of loving him unconditionally. Her face bears the strain of all that forced cheerfulness — she's like an anxious forest-animal mom straight out of Beatrix Potter, all bright eyes and wriggly nose, hoping against hope for the best.
Lawrence plays Tiffany with the right proportions of ironclad determination and self-protectiveness: This isn't a character given to self-pity, but that doesn't mean she doesn't feel pain, and her refusal to accept Pat's little-boy-lost excuses for his bad behavior is bracing.
And Cooper's performance meets Lawrence's, beautifully, halfway. The affected swagger of so many of his performances — the very thing that generally makes him so unbearable as an actor — has dissolved away here. We can see that this is a guy trapped on his own internal hamster wheel; the zig-zaggy logic of his speech makes sense, obliquely, and yet it's hardly conducive to peaceful living.
Pat is no fun to be around. But then it's no fun being him, either. And this is where Cooper's coolness as an actor comes into play: As corrosive and damaging as Pat is to those around him, all of his sharpest edges are on the inside. Cooper keeps every razor blade out of sight.