When the recently-released-from-the-looney-bin Pat (Bradley Cooper) first meets the merely “unstable” Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), they assess one other the way a couple of big-game animals might. Inappropriate things spew uncontrollably from their mouths. They look one another up and down as crazy mixed emotions wash transparently over their faces. One suspects that their killing one another or having terrifically athletic sex are equally likely outcomes — and as we start to root for the latter, it’s primarily because the former makes it all the more interesting.

When we saw Silver Linings Playbook last night with pre-Thanksgiving crowds, the audience roared throughout, and so did we. It’s most similar to the writer-director David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster (1996), which showed how much he knows how to make a screwball comedy in which things escalate and take unexpected turns.

Between his tight scripts, colorful characters, dream casting, and some drop-dead brilliant editing, Russell knows how to take you down a weird and very funny road. And I reluctantly admit that he gets a stellar, manic performance out of Bradley Cooper, whose charms I generally fail to miss. Cooper’s big blue eyes here convey not sexiness but clueless self-delusion and a singular lack of control that constitute, surely, the best acting he’s ever done. (I also suspect that being in such good acting company raised the bar. But let’s not be small.)

Pat has been institutionalized for something they refer to euphemistically as “the incident” — brutally beating the man sleeping with his wife — and during his months inside, he has absorbed only selectively the physicians’ advice. Namely, he has hitched his star to a vague pile of wishful thinking about silver linings and can-do optimism, while ignoring everything else. He is so myopically determined to win back his estranged wife, who has placed a restraining order on him, that he’s obsessed with slimming down and making himself into exactly the man she wants him to be. Moreover, he’s dead set on doing it all without taking the meds that dumb him down. When the shrink advises him to have a strategy for the possibility that his wife doesn’t want him back, he converts this back into his single-minded strategy for making himself marriage-ready.

A pause is in order. Yes, this is a film about a dangerously self-deluded, mentally ill individual who believes he can get along fine without his meds so long as he exercises and keeps looking for silver linings. Make up your own mind about whether you’re willing to take that as a given and let that guy be your protagonist. The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody was not willing.

To be honest, I was willing — especially as it’s in aid of a really good screwball comedy. The key to this film is that Pat’s refusal of medication in favor of fantasy is a perfect metaphor for how this film will function in your life, perched as it is to arrive in theaters just in time for Thanksgiving. Persist in your delusions and have a little faith, it whispers, for perhaps things will come out okay in the end. As willing as I am to enjoy comedies about the insane, I also noticed those times in this film when I had to swallow my disbelief. Let’s just say that Russell will surely be hearing howls from the ranks of those who actually treat and/or have to live with bipolar and mood swing disorders — and yet I kind of loved it anyway.

Pat isn’t the only one given to magical thinking. His mother (the magnificent Australian actor Jacki Weaver, who’s not given nearly enough here, and who chilled me to the bone in Animal Kingdom) believes that one can smooth everything over with the right foods — “crabby snacks and homemades,” terms only familiar to those with intimate experience with the Philadelphia suburbs. Even worse is his father (Robert De Niro), an Eagles fan so obsessed that 1) he has been banned from the stadium for life for fighting and 2) he believes that Eagles wins can be ensured so long as he faithfully enacts a bevy of  superstitious gestures, from arranging the TV remotes in a particular way to holding an Eagles handkerchief, expectantly, in one hand while unblinkingly gazing at the screen.

I mean, in retrospect, is it any wonder Pat has his issues?

In someone else’s hands, this scenario would make me cringe — but with actors as stellar as these, what can I say? It works. But things get ratcheted way up when Pat shows up for dinner with his friends Ronnie (John Ortiz in a really great small role) and Veronica/”Ronnie” (Julia Stiles, I love you) to find that they’ve invited her sister Tiffany, a young widow with a bit of a reputation from her pre-marriage days.

Until now, Pat has appeared as determined as he is deluded. But compared with Tiffany, he’s a lightweight re: determination. Her mere presence throws a goodly portion of his myopia out the window. Nor is she afraid to put herself in his way and keep herself within his line of sight, and keep confounding Pat’s attempts to label her. She may be unstable, but she’s far smarter and less deluded than he is, and in him she has recognized a common soul.

In Tiffany, Jennifer Lawrence has the hardest role in this film. Whereas Cooper gets to go batshit without going quite so far as Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys (1995), Lawrence has to persuade us that she’s crazy enough to find Cooper’s character appealing without letting us rack it up to mere nymphomania or view her as comparable to the utterly incomprehensible Emily Watson character in Punch Drunk Love (2002), who inexplicably set her hat for Adam Sandler (argh; that one still kills me). This is hard, especially because Tiffany’s pursuit of Pat requires that she smack him around a bit — and I don’t just mean figuratively — to knock him out of that crazy singlemindedness. 

Now, I‘ve been raving about Jennifer Lawrence for years now, but let me say how happy I am that she opted for this comedy. She has a string of very serious roles as ass-kickers — and can we say the same about any other woman in the history of film? — so her career will only improve by showing that her highly physical, coiled presence onscreen has huge comic potential as well. Her character isn’t used for levity or knee-slapping jokes; rather, she appears to rivet your attention, grab you by the ears, and focus your attention on a viable road back to reality.

I liked every minute of this film, even when I wasn’t yet convinced by Cooper and when, toward the end, things move crazily toward improbable resolutions. And I can imagine Silver Linings Playbook becoming a part of my own family’s routine of re-watching goofy comedies during the holiday season. Because in the end, screwball is its own medicine. In offering a modern take on a classic Hollywood genre, this film makes self-medication both a theme and a prescription.

 

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