Silver Linings Playbook is, like its hero, bipolar and unstable. What at first looks like a low-budget, gritty indie character study about mental illness eventually turns into a shameless shower of Hollywood syrup. In other words, it has Oscar nominations written all over it.
Start with Bradley Cooper as Pat, a Philadelphia schoolteacher who, as he is being driven home from a Baltimore mental institution by his mother (Jacki Weaver), is already acting a little weird. Gradually it emerges why he was in the hospital: He nearly beat to death a man he caught with his wife in the shower, and he remains obsessed with reconciling with her.
David O. Russell, who directed Silver Linings and wrote it, adapting a novel by Matthew Quick, got started with amusing little movies like Flirting with Disaster but a couple of years later made a more conventional play for Oscars, The Fighter (which won both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo top honors in supporting roles). Nowadays his strategy seems to be to use his indie credibility as the castor oil that makes grouchy critics swallow much more than a spoonful of sugar in this conventional, formulaic crowd-pleaser.
Pat gets invited to a dinner party where he shows up inappropriately attired in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey – no. 10, for DeSean Jackson, the wide receiver whose infamous spiking of a football at the one yard line is repeatedly mentioned as a metaphor for Pat’s own habit of messing up the easy stuff. But he meets a fellow victim of instability, Tiffany (a superb Jennifer Lawrence, who is sure to get another Oscar nomination for this performance), whose husband recently died under vaguely described circumstances.
Meanwhile, staying with his parents in a working-class Philly neighborhood, Pat keeps having mini breakdowns (the breathless scene in which he searches for an old wedding video while Russell pounds a Led Zeppelin song in the background is the best in the movie), getting unwelcome visits from a police officer assigned to his case, and getting in arguments with his dad (Robert De Niro). The old man’s slightly obsessive-compulsive habits and gambling on Philadelphia Eagles football games seem to prove that he is the crazy tree from which this young nutjob didn’t fall very far.