Director David O. Russell throws us right back into the dysfunctional family territory of his previous work with Silver Linings Playbook, a funny, warm-hearted crowd pleaser. The family this time around are the Solitanos and while they might not be as quirky as the Coplins from Flirting With Disaster or as rough around the edges as the Ward clan from The Fighter, they’re not without their problems.
Youngest son Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just finished a stint at a mental hospital for giving his wife’s lover a savage beatdown and moves back in with his folks, housewife Delores (Jacki Weaver) and obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who has become a book keeper after losing his pension.
In the mental hospital, Pat adopted a new philosophy to help him find the silver lining in every negative scenario but rather than using this as a means to roll with the punches and move on with his life, he thinks his positive outlook will help him rekindle the relationship with his wife which, as we learn throughout the film, was a troubled union long before Pat beat the crap out of anyone.
His under-the-thumb friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his ice-queen wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) try to set him up with their similarly damaged friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who deals with her problems by sleeping with anyone and everyone.
There’s an immediate attraction between the couple which Tiffany is very up front about but Pat is so focused on his estranged wife, he only sees Tiffany as a means to deliver letters to her. In exchange for delivering the letters, Pat has to be Tiffany’s partner in a ballroom dancing competition, a positive act that Pat thinks will prove to his wife that he’s changed.
The set-up sounds like the stuff of a dumb romcom, and no doubt a lot of the material is broad, but in David O. Russell’s hands, the film is smarter, deeper and more truthful than you would at first imagine. No doubt there are people out there who will chastise it as a simplistic story of mental illness being cured by true love or label the Tiffany character as a cheap male fantasy but that would be to miss the universally relatable story of two people looking to find someone who accepts them for who they are, warts and all.
Crucial to this working is the performances from Cooper and Lawrence who are both on top of their game here. Cooper is better than he’s ever been, trading in his slick, funny movie star persona for a scruffier, downbeat performance that is often manic but never goes over the top. If Cooper is good, then Lawrence is great as a seemingly tough young woman who underneath the bluster is extremely vulnerable, especially as she tries to deal with Pat’s issues while trying to keep her own shit together.
The supporting cast is also impressive, particularly Robert De Niro as Pat’s OCD suffering father. De Niro is charged with delivering the movies big message-laden speeches and copes well, giving his best performance in a number of years.
Towards the end of Silver Linings Playbook, the plot throws a lot of stakes on the outcome of the dance competition and also a big football game, setting up a third act that is predictable and a little too conventional for everything that came before it. However, after having spent a brisk two hours with these characters, there’s enough invested in them that it’s easy to be swept up by the ending and leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling all over.