It takes a little more than a half hour for Jennifer Lawrence to show up on screen and rescue "Silver Linings Playbook." The camera of director David O. Russell is as smitten with the occasion as I was – and the film's hero, Pat, too. The shot suddenly freezes in close-up and, as they say in script world, gives you the stunned POV of a man who is almost bowled over by his attraction to a woman.
Until that point, the dossier of Pat – terrifically well-played by Bradley Cooper in a breakout role – is this: He is, by his own admission, an undiagnosed bipolar who says weird things brought on by stress. He has spent eight well-medicated months in a mental hospital as part of a plea deal for beating the stuffing out of a fellow teacher he caught having sex with his wife in the shower. (Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" – their wedding song – was playing outside the bathroom at the time on a boom box. The mere sound of it now triggers helpless rage.)
He was allowed to walk out of the hospital because his mother insisted on springing him after the court's mandated eight months were up. There's a big, fat restraining order in place keeping him a safe distance from his wife and her workplace.
Meanwhile, his personal motto is "excelsior." Pat hates negativity. And he knows he'll find a silver lining somewhere – even though he is still obsessed with a woman who cheated on him in the shower to their wedding song and then got a restraining order.
Lawrence – so busy on screen these days and so successful ("The Hunger Games") – plays Tiffany, the widow of a cop who died in a freak highway accident. She was always a little, uh, unusual, but the tragedy set her off. She was fired for sleeping with everyone in her office. (Women, too? asks Pat. Women, too.) Psychotherapy, of course, ensued and her own lavish experiences with a smorgasbord of behavior-modifying medications.
Anyone casting aspersions on some of Tiffany's life choices will be told, "There's always going to be part of me that's sloppy and dirty, but I like that."
Oh yes. She's a dancer, too. She set up the ground floor of her garage apartment as a dance studio.
So here we are with a wacked-out Boy Meets Girl black comedy. In the world of David O. Russell – a specialist in unbalanced behavior and dysfunctional families – these two people clearly were made for each other.
In Russell's world, a screwball comedy has to have real screwballs in it. (In the case of Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" and Carole Lombard and Mischa Auer in "My Man Godfrey," they never had to suffer the indignity of diagnosis. They could just be "crazy" and hilarious.)
There isn't a single wasted second of "Silver Linings Playbook" when Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. She makes the film not only watchable but also more than a little lovable.
Cooper? Not so much. It's not his fault, really, but he's been given a comically dysfunctional Philadelphia Eagles-worshipping family that is not so terribly different from the not-so-comic, Buffalo Bills-worshipping family of the dreaded Vincent Gallo in "Buffalo '66."
Dad is an Eagles fan with his own anger "issues." He was banned from entering the stadium again after pounding the stuffing out of people rooting for opposing teams. (Given the recent death of an ejected fan outside Ralph Wilson Stadium, this part of the film is more disturbing than it undoubtedly will be to people in other cities.)
It is to the film's credit that it is more often funny, charming and lovable than it is obnoxious and annoying. Unfortunately, the annoyance quotient to me was, nevertheless, substantial.
Russell, in life, is famous in Hollywood for being genuinely obnoxious in his own way. There are hair-raising on-set tirades by him on YouTube. George Clooney and he, famously, came to blows.
Annoyance is usual for me in Russell's films, whether we're talking about "Three Kings," "Flirting with Disaster" or "I Heart Huckabees." The only film of his I'd exempt would be "The Fighter,"a superb film all around with remarkable performances.
I interviewed Russell before the release of "The Fighter," and he said he'd become a different fellow from the tempestuous younger man he is on YouTube and the anecdotes of George Clooney.
It's of no concern of us in the audience, of course, how he behaves on movie sets.
I do think, though, that Russell usually assumes an affection for genuinely obnoxious behavior that I personally don't entirely share. Better people, no doubt, feel differently, but there you have it.
Unfortunately, the finale of the story feels completely ginned up to me, as nicely worked out as it is. We're forced to admire a narrative parallelism that wouldn't necessarily work in a novel, either – a big Eagles game against the Dallas Cowboys and a Big Dance Competition a la "Dancing With the Stars" are comically counterpointed to determine just how unhinged these people will be when the evening's over.
Well, sure. OK. If that's the movie you want to make.
Performances, as always in his movies, are very fine. No matter what, it seems liberating for actors to work for a director so enamored of behavioral instability.
The character of Pat's father – a bookie with OCD and a temper of his own looking for one big kill to get himself into the restaurant business – isn't all that believable, but Robert De Niro is so good to have around you won't always mind.
Cooper, on the other hand, is so good in his bipolarity that there are times I might have voted for a restraining order for the movie myself.
It's Lawrence's film. She's beautiful, hugely talented, and happy, on the film publicity trail, to go on late night TV and tell Jay Leno about getting change for a $50 tip to a geriatric lap dancer because the dancer wouldn't give her full satisfaction.
An unusual young actress, to be sure – especially one so fully enfranchised in contemporary Hollywood.
No way of knowing this, of course, but I'd be willing to bet that Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard would have gotten a kick out of her, too.
"Silver Linings Playbook"
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Chris Tucker. 122 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.