Movie review: ‘Silver Linings’

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence might not be the first pair to come to mind when you think of leads for an emotionally complex, Oscar-bait dramedy, but that should change after watching “Silver Linings Playbook.”

With her roles in high-profile popcorn fare like “The Hunger Games” and “X-Men: First Class,” viewers might forget Lawrence stepped into the spotlight three years ago with a Best Actress nomination for the little-seen “Winter’s Bone.” She’s not an action star or sex symbol dabbling in drama; she’s the real deal.

Cooper, meanwhile, really hit the big time with “The Hangover,” although he’d been in other popular films before that. Even after his solid turn in the blackout-, tiger- and Mike Tyson-less “The Words” this year, I wasn’t sold on him as an Academy Award contender.

Cooper proves me and other doubters wrong with his performance as Pat, a bipolar teacher emerging from a mental institution after a violent encounter with his wife’s lover. Determined to reunite with her, he struggles to win the confidence of his family and friends, who don’t share his optimistic expectations of a reunion.

Then he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), a young widow with just as many, if not more, issues than Pat, but at least she seems to have a handle on them. While Pat’s outbursts are genuinely a loss of control, hers seem to be more calculated, motivated nonetheless by pain and frustration.

Mental illness is frequently played for laughs in movies. It seems this usually arises from discomfort or hesitation to delve into the subject seriously moreso than disrespect (although there’s probably an element of that at times as well). That’s not the case in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Pat’s lack of a filter in conversation produces some laughs, sure, but his struggles are uncomfortable to watch, his rants occasionally degenerating into pitiful tears and despair, rather than comical monologues.

Struggling to support and deal with Pat are his parents, played by Robert De Niro (who last teamed with Cooper in “Limitless”) and Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom”). They’re not a good cop-bad cop team, although Pat Sr., possibly with some undiagnosed issues himself, is more at odds with his son.

The story, which involves Pat becoming Tiffany’s partner in a dance contest, is shaky at times, but the performances make every scene worth watching. Cooper and Lawrence are the most over-the-top but never unnecessarily so. De Niro and Weaver are more low-key, but they can up the volume when it fits the scene.

The movie earns its R rating for language and blush-less sexual dialogue, but sex isn’t the focus of the film or the characters, just a part of the story, another welcome departure from many contemporary movies.

Multiple characters in the film are struggling, to one degree or another, to make sense of life, whether through superstition, a rigid sense of order or avoiding difficult topics. The irony of the title, and Pat’s goal to develop a plan to obtain a silver lining, is of course that silver linings are unexpected discoveries in metaphorical clouds, not the end result of a carefully considered formula.