Movies about the mentally ill tend to render them in cute, charming strokes — with only the occasional blast of ugly to remind us, "Oh, yeah, this gorgeous, lovelorn soul is still mentally ill."
Silver Linings Playbook, opening Tuesday in Lexington, has a hint of that. You cast Bradley Cooper as a mentally ill man who probably got out of the psychiatric ward too early, and Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence as a young cop's widow who isn't coping with the fact that her husband is dead, and the Hollywood ending is written all over it.
But Cooper gives his most natural, affecting and compelling performance yet as Pat, a divorced ex-schoolteacher who won't accept that he's no longer married to Nikki or that the school system would never rehire him. People might duck him in amusing ways, but the message is clear. He's dangerous.
As Tiffany, Lawrence makes us forget her dewy youth just minutes into her brittle, biting turn as a woman whose unbalanced rage is even more cleverly concealed than Pat's.
Pat's mom (Jacki Weaver of Animal Kingdom) has faith that her son would be better off at home in Philadelphia. His sports-nut dad (Robert De Niro, perfect) isn't so sure. When Pat pulls a plastic garbage bag over his sweatshirt so lose weight faster while he jogs, Dad seems to have a point.
Others aren't that delusional, which is why the shrill Veronica (Julia Stiles) nags her husband (John Ortiz) to invite Pat, whom she fears and despises, to dinner. She wants the mentally unstable guy to meet her mentally unstable sister, Tiffany. Is Veronica an idiot?
But that jaw-droppingly awkward dinner meeting is where this film by David O. Russell (The Fighter) takes off. The sparks fly between these two — and not necessarily romantic ones. They have an easy rapport, joking and comparing medications. But Pat's unshakable belief that he's winning back his ex, who has a restraining order against him, makes him seem touchier, scarier and further gone than Tiffany. Until testy Tiffany takes a moment to assure us that's a much tighter race than you'd expect.
Pat has these little mantras he picked up from group therapy and psychological counseling. "Excelsior!" he shouts at random moments when he needs some affirmation.
"If you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining." That's what he's looking for in all this.
Tiffany? "I don't get what I want, OK?" Her volatility is a frightening thing, especially when she feels she's in a contest. "You think that I'm crazier than you."
Russell, famous for his own off- camera temper, deftly balances each amusing encounter with tragic revelations and unbalanced moments — threatening to bring matters to an ugly head or deepen the connection between these two disconnected people. In film and in fiction there's always a glib cause and effect with mental illness — "this" led directly to "that." We get a little of that here as we're given the back story and we meet enough relatives to see the trees these two fun, dysfunctional apples fell from.
Anupam Kher is the cute psycho therapist. Shea Whigham is Pat's successful, more functional brother, a performance that suggests a less sensitive oaf who unthinkingly channeled Dad's Philadelphia Eagles obsession into a safer corner of his psyche. Chris Tucker turns up as a funny, dialed-down mental-patient pal of Pat who can seem the most normal of all of them. But he lets us sense that coiled inside is a sneaky, motor-mouthed maniac, the Tucker of Rush Hour, straining to get out.
Silver Linings Playbook, adapted from Matthew Quick's novel, is a ringing endorsement of "the talking cure," two people whose professional counseling is nothing compared to the ways they challenge each other and themselves to get better, each to make a better impression on the other.
Not that this will work, of course. We have to take it as a matter of faith that whatever happens, the "Hollywood ending" this film delivers will be unexpected, even if we — like the characters — have to look extra hard for that silver lining.