At first, I never would have suspected that this wacky family film filled with bubbly optimism and quirky comedy came from David O. Russell, director of the hard-hitting, fact-based boxer drama "The Fighter."
But it makes sense, because both movies center around sports and the specific oddities of certain characters meshing together in complex, almost goofy family relationships.
In "Silver Linings Playbook" -- based on Matthew Quick's 2008 novel -- Russell deals with two engaging, if not downright lovable, main characters dealing with mental illness on top of all the regular pressures and challenges in life.
The ubiquitous Bradley Cooper, one of those rare performers who can make the most opaque characters seem approachable, plays Pat Solatano, a substitute teacher before spending eight months trying to regain his balance in a mental institution suffering from bipolar disorder.
His doting mother (Jacki Weaver) brings Pat home one day, surprising her Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed husband Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who registers concern that his son may not be ready to rejoin regular day-to-day life in suburban Philly.
On the contrary, Pat Jr. insists with scary zeal that he's in great shape and sworn off meds. Now, he just wants to get back together with his wife Nikki who vacated their marriage around the time Pat became institutionalized.
Why did she dump Pat? Why does she have a restraining order against the man she married? Why does Pat freak out when he hears Stevie Wonder's song "My Cherie Amour"?
"Silver Linings Playbook" gets around to answering those questions in due time.
Meanwhile, Pat becomes intrigued by a new friend he just made in the mysterious, dark-haired Tiffany ("Hunger Games" star Jennifer Lawrence, continuing to impress with her apparently limitless versatility). She is also emotionally damaged goods, following the untimely death of her husband.
Tiffany comes off refreshingly blunt at the expense of social politeness. She clearly has an interest in Pat. She almost mows him over when she surprises him on his daily jog, which he runs while wrapped in a plastic garbage bag.
Pat will let nothing prevent him from reconnecting with Nikki, despite that Quick's script makes it clear that he and Tiffany were medicated for each other. In a comically telling dinner scene, Pat and Tiffany bond on the subject of all the drugs they have in common. (They both agree Klonopin really zaps your level of awareness.)
What impressed me most about "Silver Linings Playbook" is how Russell and his cast humanize these two unstable, lost souls with tender humor and the all-too human capacity for not always seeing reality as it exists.
Lawrence and Cooper share a punchy, sparring chemistry that approaches charm, all aided and abetted by Quick's sharpened, revealing dialogue loaded with amusing, unfiltered honesty.
"Silver Linings Playbook" believes in the healing power of sports (here the Philadelphia Eagles sports team) to ease tensions and give feuding family members a common ground for temporary bouts of peace.
The merits of this "Playbook" are such that they more than compensate for the silly, but popular, plot device of Pat and Tiffany competing in a "Dancing With the Stars"-type contest near the movie's close. Here, at least, we finally get to glimpse the never-seen Nikki (Brea Bee), by now almost a mythical entity in the story.
Masanobu Takayanagi transforms his camera from a passive observer into a character-defining force by using shots from a jumpy, hand-held lens intended to approximate Pat's post-meds personality.
Julia Stiles pops in for a too-brief appearance as Tiffany's very stable sister Veronica, and "Rush Hour" superstar Chris Tucker provides some welcome comic relief in a fairly thankless role as Pat's mental ward pal Danny, who keeps escaping from the institution while believing he's been discharged.
"If you stay positive," Pat says, rendering the film title's message, "you have a shot at a silver lining!"
And without Klonopin, too.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.