By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
(CNN) — “A tragedy with a happy ending” — isn’t that what we want? People generally concentrate on the happy ending part of that sentence, taking it for evidence of a taste for mass delusion or collective amnesia.
The movies overwhelmingly give us happy endings. But too many give us happy beginnings and middles, too, as if we’re incapable of enjoying the meat in a sandwich.
David O. Russell keeps a smile on his face — all six of his films could be called comedies — but he doesn’t shirk from the other part of the equation, either. He’s touched on incest (“Spanking the Monkey”), adoption (“Flirting with Disaster”), the Gulf War (“Three Kings”), drug dependency (“The Fighter” — not exactly a comedy, but a film with as many laughs as most), and even existential despair (“I Heart Huckabees”).
Putting the “antic” into “romantic”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, is a comedy about clinical depression. Cynics might roll their eyes — me too, actually — but the movie plays like a dream. It defeated “Argo” for the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival in September, the first harbinger of the Oscar season.
In his most credible attempt to break out of the “light leading man” mantle (which is not to say he’s all that credible), Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a New Jersey high school history teacher tipped off his bipolar axis after finding his wife showering with another faculty member. Released from the hospital after several months, he returns to live with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and determined to win back the love of his life — hopefully without encroaching on the restraining order.
A blind date with his best friend’s recently widowed and equally traumatized sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) furnishes the manically overoptimistic Pat with a co-conspirator, and, he hopes, a back channel to his ex.
But Tiffany has her own agenda and her own needs — including a dance partner for an upcoming competition.
This last item would seem to be a sure recipe for the purest cinematic cheese, but Russell doesn’t let it curdle. He’s the ideal director to bring Matthew Quick’s best-seller to the screen because he’s too edgy to wallow. Just as “The Fighter” fended off punch drunk “Rocky” euphorics with a series of swift, cruel jabs, the brisk, eccentric “Silver Linings Playbook” resists settling into a feel-good groove.
By keeping things rough and raw — his scenes are always an inch or three off-kilter, a little jerky and unpredictable — Russell makes the jokes feel sharper, and the sentiment that much sweeter. In other words, he reminds us that silver linings are precious because they come attached to great big black clouds.
Nothing if not an actors’ movie, “Silver Linings” provides De Niro with his juiciest comic role since the first “Meet the Parents.” His socially sanctioned, but deeply superstitious, obsession with football is as wild as anything going on with his son.
Weaver, the Australian actress who earned an Academy Awards supporting nomination for “Animal Kingdom,” is completely convincing as a loving wife and mom who’s in over her head in this chaotic household. And Chris Tucker (yes, that Chris Tucker) is a hoot as Pat’s certifiably insane, but scrupulously polite hospital buddy.
Even then, the biggest takeaway has to be “Hunger Games” star Lawrence. She doesn’t just hold her own, she absolutely bosses her scenes, De Niro and all.
Does “Silver Linings Playbook” trivialize depression and mental illness? In the end, I think you have to say it sugarcoats those things. But a little positive thinking never hurts: See this one with a receptive crowd. Chances are you’ll come out feeling better than when you went in.