IF A single word could sum up the first decade of David O. Russell's filmmaking career, it would be ''audacity''. This quality was most visible in his choice of comic subject matter: mother-son incest (Spanking the Monkey), the Gulf War (Three Kings), the meaning of life (I Heart Huckabees).
|Title||Silver Linings Playbook|
|Director||David O. Russell|
|Screenwriter||David O. Russell|
|Actors||Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker|
After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.
But after a string of setbacks, Russell has emerged somewhat chastened. His 2010 comeback The Fighter had his manic humour and love of goofball characters, but these virtues were wrapped in an Oscar-friendly package - a true story about a family of battling underdogs, with an appropriately triumphant climax.
Based on a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook goes further down the same road. Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is the latest of Russell's quixotic heroes: a former substitute teacher discharged from a mental institution eight months after a violent incident that led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Moving in with his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro) in the Philadelphia suburbs, Pat focuses on winning back his estranged wife by making himself into a better person through exercise and reading. The joke is that his relentless positive thinking is itself a kind of mania, making it impossible to say where the cure begins and the disease leaves off.
A turning point comes when Pat meets the equally neurotic Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with a promiscuous past and an unpredictable temper. After he gently rejects her offer of sex, the pair form a fraught but mutually rewarding friendship.
While the film has its hokey elements, it's unclear how far Russell believes in them. We're supposed to want Pat to fix himself but most of the entertainment value stems from his frantic behaviour - and from the chaos that ensues when multiple jabbering personalities are crammed into the same scene.
Russell's distinctive, syncopated rhythms are felt not only in the rat-a-tat dialogue but in the way the camera sweeps across a room, or in the rapidly edited close-up details - such as a cop's badge, or the crucifix around Tiffany's neck - that are used to evoke Pat's darting gaze.
Cooper gives his best performance, controlling and modulating his eccentric mannerisms - unblinking stare, wolfish grin, jabbing monotonal delivery - until they add up to a character far more likeable than the smug jock he usually plays as a leading man.
To the role of Tiffany, Lawrence brings a husky voice, a slightly puffy look and an often unreadable demeanour: in her strongest scene, she recounts her sexual exploits to Pat, doling out salacious details one by one and watching cautiously as his eyes light up.
If she registers less strongly than Cooper, it's perhaps because the script gives her less to work with - and because she still looks like a teenager, when the role appears to have been conceived originally for a woman in her late 20s or older.
Why did Tiffany marry so young, and what was her relationship with her husband really like? No answers are supplied: Russell is almost exclusively interested in the part she plays in Pat's healing process, not the other way around.
Russell's best films - such as Huckabees or Flirting with Disaster - seemed genuinely invested in the idea of non-conformity, with every aspect of ''normal'' behaviour open to question.
To some degree, this is true here as well. It's suggested Pat's condition has led him to certain insights - and if all the characters eventually reveal an irrational side, this is not entirely a bad thing.
It's dismaying, all the same, to see mental illness used as the ''hook'' for a Hollywood romantic comedy: a good one, but conventional all the way to the uplifting finish. Perhaps Russell's next project - a 1970s conman drama provisionally titled American Bullshit - will give him a chance to let his talent off the leash.