Hollywood loves to fix every crack in broken people. By the end of most mainstream movies, unemployed folks have jobs, lovelorn singles find a proper match, unreconciled children and parents hug.
Writer-director David O. Russell does not. His movies almost always end in guarded optimism that people knocked off their feet can get up again, that they can see light at the end of the tunnel, even if they have a long walk to reach it. So it is with “Silver Linings Playbook,” whose sitcom trailer belies a seriously funny film.
Novelist Matthew Quick, who grew up in South Jersey, set his novel of the same name in the Philadelphia suburbs. Russell kept that setting and shot there, capturing the love-hate relationships Philadelphians have with their sports teams – and, sometimes, with each other and themselves.
Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) has come home in his mid-30s to live with his parents – not so rare these days, but he’s just been released from a mental institution after going berserk and almost killing his wife’s lover. Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who has lost his job more conventionally, makes book in hopes of opening a restaurant with his profits. Mama Dolores (Jacki Weaver) cooks and worries about her men.
The younger Pat, obsessed with regaining his wife, veers from manic joy to uncontrolled anger. He asks an acquaintance to hook him up again with his estranged spouse; instead, she timidly puts forward her own sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the young widow of a dead cop who has psychological problems of her own.
This doesn’t sound like a comedy, but it is. Until the characters can take their needs seriously and laugh at themselves, at least a little, they’re not going to be healthy. “Playbook” traces all their journeys from stubborn self-assertion to a fragile connectedness that might lead to lasting bonds.
Russell likes to put actors in unaccustomed roles and make them rise to occasions. (Think of usually subdued Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, who won Oscars playing a brash son and mother in “The Fighter.”) Here he makes us glad to see Chris Tucker, something I never expected to say again; Tucker has made nothing but “Rush Hour” movies for 15 years but is sweet and relatively gentle as Pat Jr.’s best friend at the institution.
Cooper, who comes from Philly and probably knew a Pat Jr. growing up, reminds us he can do much more than crass comedy (“The Hangover”) or romantic leads. Lawrence, who’s usually cast as grim heroines fighting off fear or poverty, enjoys the novelty of playing a woman who’ll have to balance inner angels and demons all her life. De Niro emerges from a string of mediocre films and lazy performances to give a spot-on depiction of a guy who’s a bundle of neuroses inextricably tied to paternal love.
These aren’t people whose problems can be solved quickly or easily. They’ll need medication, therapy, patience, self-awareness and willingness to compromise to conquer troubles, and Russell makes us root for them as they stumble along.
Even the age difference between the two romantic leads – 15 years in real life, at least 10 in the movie – fades away over time. Broken people can sometimes heal each other. And when they find their mates against the odds, as Tiffany and Pat Jr. do, we stay on their side.