Given the weight, length, scope, and moral purpose of some of the movies currently begging you to watch them — the abolition of slavery in “Lincoln,” the triumph over addiction in “Flight,” the unstoppable ATM-ness of the 007 franchise in “Skyfall” — it’s possible to forget the pleasure to be had in relative lightness. Hollywood has gotten away from the serious comedies that once were among its specialties. Those have been farmed out to television, where subtlety, social commentary, and eccentricity mock the obviousness and idiocy of the movie comedy at the moment. Yet no matter how grim it’s looking for certain kinds of laughter, as long as there’s David O. Russell, things will be OK.
We’re so infrequently given the small, the intimate, the deathless, the funny that when we get a movie from Russell — “The Fighter” was his previous one — our involuntary response is to love it desperately, apocalyptically, like it’s the last serious comedy on Earth. His new film is “Silver Linings Playbook,” and it’s at least the last and best such movie of the year.
The film introduces us to Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a schoolteacher, leaving a Philadelphia mental hospital to live with his parents and refusing to take the medication prescribed to prevent him from going back. He’s prone to violent anger, envious of his older brother, and convinced that his estranged, adulterous wife is still in love with him. It’s a delusion somehow heightened by his prickly new friendship with a droll, oversexed, equally unstable younger woman, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) — the widowed sister of his wife’s best friend (Julia Stiles). Pat and Tiffany get reacquainted at a small dinner, where, in one of at least half a dozen beautifully written and orchestrated exchanges, they bond over pharmaceuticals in front their two unmedicated companions.
Russell adapted the movie from a novel by Matthew Quick (who lives in Massachusetts), and what ultimately happens between Pat and Tiffany is expected. But nothing that keeps them together — not the bargains they strike, the shouting fights they have, the lies they tell, nor the cruel honesty they inflict upon each other — is ordinary or predictable. One deal involves Pat agreeing, with severe reluctance, to be Tiffany’s partner in a professional dance competition. Will he chicken out? Will she fall in love with him even though he’s unwaveringly obsessed with his largely unseen wife? Will anyone acknowledge that Pat’s troubles might be related to the obsessive-compulsive disorder of his father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), whose gambling is abetted by a meek, kooky wife, Dolores (Jacki Weaver).
The movie takes an audacious approach. One evening Dolores tries to calm a fight between Pat and Pat Sr. that turns verbal then physical then into the sort of situation that forces a neighbor to call the police. By almost any standard, this should be a cataclysmic entanglement, one that Russell initially overdoes — the Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack is too loud; the hand-held camera and editing too erratic. But neighbors who’ve called the police appear to have done so for the comic potential of having a nincompoop cop, played by Dash Mihok, interrupt the drama to deliver comic relief.
That scene is typical of Russell. It’s as if he checked the emotional weather, saw the forecast called for snow, and chose to wear shorts and a tank top anyway. He’s like Preston Sturges in that sense, fearlessly — and not always successfully — shepherding crises away from tragedy, sensing we can see the stakes more clearly when we’re not watching them through tears. He’s different from the other screwball directors that way. His feet remain more firmly planted. You couldn’t always say that about him. The snob in Russell would have bristled at the soiled melodrama of a film like this or “The Fighter,” at all the happy emotional cohesion. These two movies are unexpectedly authentic works of blue-collar regionalism (“The Fighter” was set in Lowell) structured around the vivid quirks of sport. Russell isn’t seeing class or place, per se (he couldn’t be, here; there are barely any Philadelphia accents). He’s seeing people, lives, and situations.
Yes, De Niro is playing a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic, but he always sounds like a man rooting against them at Giants Stadium. Cooper grew up in Philadelphia and uses only the mildest of accents. Still, it’s a relief to see him with a part that lets him do something other than ooze. He’s always had the self-confidence of a star, but he’s never had a part that lets him do much with it. Here he winds himself up until he can barely match the pace of Pat’s ranting arias, like he’s talking faster than he can think. That’s the character: a manic-depressive tired of climbing this mood-enhanced StairMaster. Cooper gives the performance just the right lunacy and doubt. It’s a happy surprise, like watching a goofball student finally ace an exam.
It’s wonderful to hear what Cooper and Lawrence can do with great dialogue and complicated feelings, also what they can do as part of a larger acting team, especially alongside a hale, in-rare-form De Niro. You’re initially wary that Lawrence has been cast because sexy ingénues like her are what happens when straight men take their fantasies out on us. But you realize that she’s just in need of more parts as full as her figure. She’s built like the pinups from 50 years ago, and in this movie she has the authority of a star even older than that. When she gives a rousing, authoritative speech about football statistics it’s a shock both because no one in the movie expects it of Tiffany and no one in the audience expects it of Lawrence.
The rest of the cast includes Paul Herman, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Anupam Kher, and Chris Tucker, and even once the movie’s coincidences and human pileups have strained all credibility, the sound of them all shouting over each other or racing around a downtown ballroom is just such a satisfying display of kinetic teamwork that we begin to accept the movie’s implausibilities as part of a larger social fable. You come to appreciate that the six- or seven-person argument is as dear to Russell as car chases were to John Frankenheimer.
Russell began his career in the mid-1990s on the margins of mainstream moviemaking, with the droll riff on incest, “Spanking the Monkey,” and gradually permeated the industry’s membrane with “Flirting With Disaster,” “Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees,” and “The Fighter.” He’s evolved into Hollywood’s most instinctive director of ensemble comedies. They’re starry, hyper-intelligent, over-caffeinated, crazed adventures in screwball comedy. They take on the philosophic, the neurotic, and the familial. Their characters are searching for ideas and moral high ground and people. They’re trying to figure out where they belong in the universe, in war zones, in their bloodlines. They’re trying to find some balance between the sane and the crazy, between judgment and compassion. But the exhilarating truth of the David O. Russell experience is that — philosophy and pharmaceuticals be damned — the balance doesn’t exist: We’re all just kind of nuts.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.