David O. Russell knows all about ups and downs.
Once the darling of ’90s indie after provocative black comedies Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings, Russell spent the noughties dismantling his rep via well-documented scraps with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin and still-unfinished political satire Nailed.
Yet, after hitting the comeback trail with the aptly named The Fighter, Russell has transformed a romantic comedy about mental illness - possibly the least promising mainstream pitch in years - into an awards magnet and feelgood hit.
Silver Linings Playbook, buoyant on emotional turmoil and family dysfunction, is The Fighter’s natural heir. Russell perfects its style - a heightened sense of agitation in which simmering violence is channelled into sprawling laughter - to create a thoroughly modern screwballer that doesn’t shy away from taking punches.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, recently diagnosed as bipolar after beating up his wife’s lover. Released from hospital to his parents’ care, he’s soon at loggerheads with fussing hen mother Jacki Weaver and father Robert De Niro, an American football fan intent on press-ganging Pat into his OCD match-day rituals.
A dinner date introduces Pat to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), sister of his estranged wife’s friend and a girl with her own demons, following the death of her husband. A deal is struck: Tiffany will deliver a letter to Pat’s wife, provided he partners her in her quixotic quest to win a local dance contest.
Silver Linings Playbook mirrors the duality of its title.
In broadest outline, this is a schematic, functional piece of work right down to the last act’s redemptive double bet. That accounts for the playbook: an American football term referring to the well-rehearsed moves by which a team wins matches.
Yet Russell’s direction fights genre inevitability by refusing to locate a still point, adamant that the emotional highs of those silver linings require a more chaotic approach.
Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, this was personal for Russell, who has a bipolar son of his own. The result does not short-change mental illness, showing up the asinine characterisations of most romcom kooks by making Pat and Tiffany’s psychological troubles central to events.
In place of twee whimsy or liberal grandstanding, Russell applies a directness that is bracing. This is a study in headlong momentum, as Pat and Tiffany bond and bicker during running sessions that are passive-aggressive spats of one-upmanship.
Even as the discipline of dancing starts to slow them down, there’s still room for a White Stripes freak-out in the middle of a stately waltz. That livewire energy is boosted by a great cast firing on all fronts.
Russell proved with The Fighter that he can go the distance, with two Oscar wins from three acting nominations. This time he’s gone one better; not since Reds in 1981 had a film been nominated in all four acting categories.
Cooper splits his suave, smug Hangover persona in half as a puppyish romantic and emotional time-bomb. In turn, Oscar-winner Lawrence throws everything into the mix: bravado, vulnerability, sex appeal and childlike cheek.
As in The Hunger Games, her intensity gives the frenetic camera pause. Yet probably Russell’s greatest triumph, aided by Weaver’s unshowy, underrated turn, is to coax a performance out of De Niro that marries the indifferent coasting of his recent playbook to the complexity, assurance and - yes - silver linings of his peak.
Russell reportedly shot multiple versions of scenes, varying the severity or softness to achieve an expertly judged balance. Just as Pat and Tiffany evade the pills that would curb their excesses, so this movie warns against medicated cinema.
As Russell well knows, it’s better to go a little crazy sometimes.