(M, 122 minutes.)
The latest buzz film by director David O. Russell - replete with eight Oscar nominations - straddles a fine line between farce and kitchen-sink drama before settling into a groove that gets under one's skin.
As Pat Solitano jnr, a former teacher battling bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, Bradley Cooper jumps through a precarious series of hoops in his quest for stability. Pat jnr has been in care for eight months after losing it when he found his wife taking a shower with a colleague. Released to his Italian-American parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), he is soon drawn to the similarly troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose past is almost as chequered as his.
Much has been made of the attention Russell brings to a once-taboo subject. He has an 18-year-old son who has battled mental illness, and Matthew Quick's novel, from which the film was adapted, was also inspired by experience with such problems. The hope is it will point to a wider understanding of the complexities of suffering from mental illness.
The Oscar-nominated director of The Fighter could not have picked a finer cast to illustrate his point. Cooper delivers an inspired, intelligent turn as the out-of-control and socially inept Pat jnr, whose prospects appear bleak, at best. Lawrence riffs off him nicely, and the whiff of sexual tension is never far away. De Niro, as Pat snr, is something of a revelation, delivering his best performance in years as the football-obsessed bookie patriarch whose domestic structure might have to shift. It is anything but a phone-in performance. Australia's Weaver, as the attentive, secondary parent, has done well to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Ultimately, the film plays as a crowd-pleaser of sorts. Tiffany needs Pat jnr to partner with her for a dance comp that means everything to her. As if taking a leaf out of Little Miss Sunshine, the stakes are not stacked in their favour. Yet it hardly matters. There is a very likeable quality to this dramedy, which defies the odds to engage and entertain. Yes, it's messy, erratic and untoward to begin with, but beyond the chaos lies a charm that grows and stays. It's easy to feel puzzled about Russell's latest film, even dismissive at first, but it demands closer inspection. It's already giving Argo and the coming Lincoln a good run for their money in the Oscar stakes. I wouldn't be surprised if it makes a clean sweep on the night.