Rating: ★★★★½

By all indications, Silver Linings Playbook should be pretty standard Oscar bait: man gets out of court-ordered psychiatric hospital, tries to reconnect with  his ex-wife, finds a new possible love interest, and earns a chance at personal triumph. And yet, much like he did with The Fighter (another film with a very basic premise) director David O. Russell is able to take would-be ordinary material and make it into something much, much more.

The former patient in question here is Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former teacher who’s coming back to Philadelphia after spending 8 months at a facility in Baltimore for pummeling the man he found in the shower with his wife, Nicky. He returns to live at home with his cautiously optimistic mother (Jackie Weaver) and Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed, superstitious father (Robert DeNiro), determined to straighten out his mind and recapture his estranged love.

This, of course, is complicated by a restraining order that bars him from seeing or contacting Nikki, along with his ongoing struggle to contain his bipolar disorder. The situation is further muddied by the appearance of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with her plenty of her own issues.  After comparing medication histories, going on unplanned runs together, and sitting down for an incredibly unstable (but hilarious) meal, they discover that they can each help the other move forward. Tiffany promises to help Pat reconnect with Nikki, but only if Pat helps her compete in a partners dance contest.

If that sounds a little ridiculous, well, it is. Even more so when you factor in how much of the film turns around DeNiro’s OCD-fueled superstitious gambling on Eagles games. But with the right actors and the right director, anything can work. Silver Linings Playbook proves that point.

The cast here will, and should, get plenty of praise, but Lawrence especially stands apart. Only 22 years old, she is almost certainly deserving of more acclaim than whatever amount she receives. She is, more than any other young actresses placed alongside her, able to dominate and command the frame, even alongside the likes of DeNiro, Weaver, and Cooper. She fills her performance with so many different kinds of energy that you almost want to watch her on slow motion to make sure you don’t miss anything. Paired with a surprisingly mature turn from Cooper, Silver Linings has exactly the anchor it needs to hold together and move forward.

Russell, for his part part of the equation, proves an expert hand at balancing the films comedy with its drama, often finding one inside of the other in unexpected places. This is, despite the weight of its subject matter, a very funny movie, and Russell knows exactly when to turn the audience’s laugh track on and off.

Russell also does well to pace the film as a mirror to Pat’s frenzied mental state, with occasionally frantic camera movements, quick cuts and transitions to keep us slightly unsteady. If there are a few moments that seem undercooked or forgettable, they’re quickly forgotten once the climax rolls around. There are plenty of films that you exit feeling like you’re on a high; Silver Linings Playbook puts you in a cannon and shoots you back out, almost overjoyed with how simple its power is, even as hours and days pass.

Maybe we should have seen this coming: in his last two films, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees and 2010’s The Fighter, David O. Russell mused on the meaning of fate, coincidence, family, sport, and personal triumph. In Silver Linings Playbook, he’s not only put all of these things together, but done so in a way that presents a fully formed understanding of how they all interact. This is Russell answering his own questions, but doing it without having his characters preach or send sermons at the audience. He teaches his ideas through the screen, and does so in a manner that makes his answers as valuable to us as they are to him. That means something. Something big.

Silver Linings Playbook is out now.

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This article was first posted on November 27, 2012