Les Miserables is like taking Tums after a bout of dysentery. It's an agreeably warm movie, providing viewers a genuine emotional payoff. True, Les Mis will make you cry; so will getting kneecapped with a tire iron. Neither is recommended. David O. Russell's brilliant dramedy earns sentimentality through authentic characters and flawless performances.
Patrick Solitano (Bradley Cooper) returns home after a stint in the mental hospital. Suffering from bipolar disorder, he snapped after catching his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) in flagrante and assaulting her lover. Patrick struggles to adjust: his father (Robert DeNiro) works as a bookie, betting on Philadelphia Eagles games to fund a restaurant, while Nikki's issued a restraining order. Patrick finds solace with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a mentally-scarred widow. Tiffany agrees to help Pat communicate with Nikki in exchange for help with a dance contest. Their plan grows complicated when Pat's dad bets a friend on their contest.
Structurally, Silver Linings Playbook resembles your typical romcom. When Pat and Tiffany meet it's little doubt where their relationship's heading, while the dance tournament provides familiar third act drama. Writer-director Russell crafts a closely-observed drama around these familiar tropes. Russell's ear for dialogue and knack for characterization shape a film that's alternately funny, raw and heartfelt.
Silver Linings handles familiar conflicts unconventionally. Pat's mental illness is treated believably, his recovery a painful process rather than instantaneous cure. His obsession with restoring his old life backfires, forcing him to start from square one. Tiffany deals with her husband's death through promiscuity; middle-aged suitors proposition her and she immediately offers Pat sex. Their budding relationship provides each with much-needed stability. Pat Sr. focuses obsessively on football, bonding with his son by fusing their mutual "projects." Russell makes these characters remarkably warm and three-dimensional, helped immeasurably by his cast.
Jennifer Lawrence is equally impressive. She avoids "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" cliches for a unique character. Tiffany's quirks aren't treated as whimsical insights but deep-seated anguish, recognizing Pat as an opportunity for growth. Her chemistry with Cooper generates a slow-burn romance, moving in believable fits, starts and mutual frustration. After Winter's Bone, The Hunger Games and this Lawrence has both artistic and popular acclaim, a remarkable achievement at 22. With her talent she's certainly earned it.
Robert DeNiro is excellent playing a regular guy with scarcely-acknowledged mental baggage. It's nice to see the star of Raging Bull in a role worthy of his talent. Jacki Weaver plays her nagging mother broader and perhaps less effective. Chris Tucker is uncharacteristically low-key playing Pat's friend. Supporting actors John Ortiz (American Gangster), Shea Whigham and Anupam Kher perfectly complement the leads.
Silver Linings Playbook proved a wonderful surprise. It's ultimately a feel-good movie, Russell's challenging presentation making the payoff infinitely more satisfying.