Updated Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 04:46 PM
Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) seems like a man just barely pasted together; he's the sort who blurts out things that shouldn't be said even as he knows he shouldn't, and always looks a little frightened of what might be about to happen. In David O. Russell's wonderful "Silver Linings Playbook," Pat needs to put his life back together. A former teacher, he's just been released from a Pennsylvania state institution, where he landed in a plea bargain after viciously attacking his wife's lover. Now living with his parents (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) and receiving outpatient therapy from a friendly doctor (Anupam Kher), he's determined to control his impulses, reconnect with his family, reunite with his wife, Nikki, and find the silver linings in a life that seems emptied of possibility.
This doesn't exactly sound like the blueprint for a conventional romantic comedy — troubled, haunted Pat, with a life that seems to frequently come crashing down around him, is nobody's idea of a dreamboat. Nonetheless, he's introduced to the pertly gravel-voiced Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who's the sister of a friend of Nikki's (this movie creates a community; everyone we meet seems to be a neighbor) and who has troubles of her own. She's a young widow, and she's angry and cold, to the extent that Pat (of all people) points out, "You have poor social skills." Thinking she might be a path to Nikki, Pat awkwardly befriends Tiffany — who in turn realizes that he might be a path to something she wants.
"Silver Linings Playbook" defies categorization: it's both comedy and drama, without fitting neatly into either genre. It follows much of the romantic-comedy playbook but does so with disregard for some of the key rules (for example, though they're both conventionally good-looking, this prickly pair is neither cute nor lovable). It's shot often in extreme, anxious close-up, and the interiors have a real- people nonprettiness to them. The Solatano home is a symphony in '70s browns and golds and plaids (no one's thought of redecorating for decades); Pat sleeps, on mismatched sheets, in a room that's now used for storing the Christmas decorations.
On football days, his mother whips up "crabby snacks and homemades"; no one needs to be told what these are (except the intrigued audience). It all feels like eavesdropping on a family we might know, dealing with its problems in the semipublic way one does in a close-knit neighborhood. The romance is secondary; it sneaks up on us (and on Tiffany and Pat) as life sometimes does, and we almost don't realize (until we've watched a dance contest and seen Cooper and Lawrence looking exquisite on a street lined with Christmas lights) that this quirky, moving little movie is a love story.
Beautifully performed and always surprising, "Silver Linings Playbook" is the best kind of crowd pleaser, ending with a montage that will make all of us think of home.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
'Silver Linings Playbook,' with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher. Written and directed by David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick. 122 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. Several theaters.