David O. Russell is like a lowbrow cousin to Paul Thomas Anderson. They both like to explore male protagonists who can’t do anything right, whose apelike bumbling ruins everything for everyone around them, all the while convinced of their own righteousness. They also make wildly uneven films whose very unevenness is part of what makes them exciting.
In Russell’s latest, Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper plays very much against type as Pat, a mentally unstable man who begins the film being taken home from an institution, somewhat reluctantly, by his mother (Jacki Weaver). Pat is in deep denial about his mental state, refusing to take his meds and still firmly convinced that his estranged wife is going to take him back, despite a restraining order. Meanwhile at home, his dad (Robert De Niro) is a compulsive gambler with OCD, manic superstitions and his own history of violence.
While scheming to approach his ex, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an equally disturbed friend of a friend. She connives to help him, with her own agenda in the back pocket. Multiple complications and a dance contest ensue.
With both plot and characters, Russell walks a fine line between subverting Hollywood clichés and embracing them outright. Chris Tucker, as Pat’s mental hospital buddy, is both a textbook Magic Negro and a caricature of mental illness straight out of 80s loony-bin capers (Crazy People or The Dream Team, anyone?), but like Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, he also provides the uncomfortable sensation of what one of his typical comedic characters would be like in real life.
As with a lot of Russell films, the strength is in the cast. Cooper seems like he doesn’t quite have the chops to shake his pretty-boy-asshole typecast, but he gives a mighty effort and comes close enough, with an almost unrecognizable look and a sympathetic-in-spite-of-it-all character. De Niro shows, as he does from time to time, that there’s still life in him. Lawrence brings her great screen presence to what could have been a stale and sexist character. Shea Whigham (notable as Steve Buscemi’s brother on Boardwalk Empire) has a too-small role as Pat’s older, more successful brother. And Weaver, though even more underused, is one of the film’s hidden strengths (and this along with her sinister role in Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom shows her amazing range).
It’s a destabilizing film — there’s a lot of people standing around yelling at each other, and just when you think it’s about to get really dark, Russell does a 180 into full Hollywood cheese (but with tremendous effectiveness). As such it’s hard to recommend outright, but Russell’s panache and his awesome cast make it both watchable and memorable. ■