Damaged goods, that's Tiffany and Pat. He's a bipolar teacher just out of eight months in a state loony bin. She's a young widow, overcompensating for the death of her cop husband by fucking, well, anyone. They're manic energy unleashed. But as played with go-for-broke intensity, humor and raw feeling by Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, they're deranged romantics you can't help rooting for.
Playing the Hollywood cute game has no appeal for director David O. Russell, who adapts Matthew Quick's 2008 novel with the inspired lunacy and acid wit it demands. Google Russell and you get tales of onset shoutfests with the starry likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin (that one's a YouTube favorite). Is Russell that mercurial? Don't care. What matters is his enviable record of smart, scrappy movies – Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter.
Silver Linings Playbook is eager to sting instead of soothe. It's one of the year's best movies because Russell makes you laugh till it hurts. Trouble starts when Pat's peacemaker mom, Dolores (Jacki Weaver, wonderful as the film's sole contact with sanity), picks him up at the clinic. Then Pat is imprisoned back in his family home, ruled by Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a sports bookie so obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles that it's his only means of communication. De Niro, getting a rare chance to grapple with a role worthy of his talents, is sensational. Dad's been barred from Eagles games because of violent outbursts. And his son has been jailed for going postal on the guy he caught with his wife in the shower.
Pain is the subtext of nearly every interaction in this film. For the old man, it comes from the toll his obsessive-compulsive disorder takes on his family. For the son, it's delusion. Pat is always looking for a silver lining, despite the fact that his ex-wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), has a restraining order against him. Hearing their wedding song, "My Cherie Amour," really sets Pat off. And yet he thinks a reconciliation is in the cards.
No one else does, especially not his therapist, Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), and fellow patient Danny (Chris Tucker, nice to have you back), who visits every time he busts out of the cuckoo's nest. To distract Pat from his impossible dream, his best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), invites Pat home to dinner to set him up with Tiffany (Lawrence), the sister of his controlling wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles).
The dinner is a disaster. But Pat and Tiffany, speaking their unfiltered minds in a flood of uncensored dialogue, hit it off. Sort of. Tiffany offers him sex. Pat, still faithful to his faithless ex-wife, offers Tiffany a deal. If she'll deliver a letter to Nikki, he'll be her partner in a dance contest. Tacky, yes, also terrific.
Cooper, best known as the Hangover guy and People's Sexiest Man Alive, seizes the juiciest role of his career and meets every comic and dramatic challenge. There's an ache in his funny, touching and vital performance that resonates. Lawrence, the fem warrior of The Hunger Games and Academy Award nominee at 20 for 2010's Winter's Bone, is some kind of miracle. She's rude, dirty, funny, foulmouthed, sloppy, sexy, vibrant and vulnerable, sometimes all in the same scene, even in the same breath. No list of Best Actress Oscar contenders would be complete without the electrifying Lawrence in the lead. She lights up the screen.
Russell gives Silver Linings Playbook a jagged, jolting spark that throws you off balance. Tiffany jogs up behind Pat, prodding and poking until she wins him over. The movie works the same way. It doesn't cheat, until a "happy" ending that panders when it should feel provisional. Only in Hollywood can mental illness be cured by moonstruck fantasy. Pat and Tiffany walk and often wobble among the emotionally wounded. That's when these two losers in love cut deepest. Tinged with shadows and ignited by Lawrence and Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook raises the bar on romantic comedy. It's crazy good.