David O Russell's psychocomedy is a fractious, uneven affair, full of jabbering voices and clashing temperaments, and for a while I couldn't get on with it at all. Dysfunctional behaviour, however comical in tone, requires careful handling: a little of it goes a long way, and a lot of it turns an audience right off. Silver Linings Playbook takes some risks in this area, but have patience and the rewards become clear: there is a crackle to it and an off-the-wall charm you don't much encounter in the movie mainstream.
Its biggest risk is putting Bradley Cooper's performance front and centre. He plays Pat, who's just finishing an eight-month stay at a Baltimore mental-health institution. When his mother comes to take him home, he tells her "I'm remaking myself", which sounds ominous. What he means is he's going to get himself into shape and win back his estranged wife, Nikki, because "we're in love and we're married – it's electric between us."
What Nikki feels isn't certain, though we do know she has a restraining order on him. Cooper, whose star has risen swiftly since The Hangover, here exhibits a hard blue-eyed stare and a hectoring tone that put us on edge. Pat has gone back to living in Philadelphia with his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro), who have the longsuffering look of folks prepared to sacrifice their peace and quiet. It's one thing for their bipolar son to rant about the shortcomings of the novel he's just read (A Farewell to Arms), but does he have to barge into their bedroom at 3am to do so?
Pat also has a dangerous trigger about music, specifically Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour", and we learn in flashback what it did to him. He's on medication, of course, and he's also seeing a shrink. "You need to get to a quieter place," the latter tells him. The whole film needs to get to a quieter place, actually, what with Pat and his dad both flying off the handle. It transpires that De Niro, a manic fan of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, has been banned from the stadium for fighting. Things start to change when Pat meets a young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who's suffered her own sort of breakdown and had a string of affairs at work. "You think I'm crazier than you," she says, incredulous, though the jury's out on that one given that Tiffany has sort-of stalked him to become his jogging partner.
But with her arrival the film goes on the upswing, animated by Lawrence's dark-eyed directness (she has a stare to match Cooper's). Brilliant in the sombre Winter's Bone and the only good thing about The Hunger Games, Lawrence does something new here as this vulnerable vamp, unable to hold back her disinhibited confessions but determined to put her life on an even keel. We sense there's feeling between her and Pat, though she has to make a bargain with him to get to first base. If he agrees to partner her in a local ballroom dancing competition, she will act as go-between to his wife and thus enable him, as he thinks, to rebuild his marriage. Somehow the film manages to turn Pat's delusional struggle to good advantage; he senses "silver linings" everywhere, even if we don't. (His fanatical devotion to exercise put me in mind of David Foster Wallace's great novel Infinite Jest, which also explored the links between depression and sport).
Adapting from Matthew Quick's debut novel, David O Russell doesn't present Tiffany and Pat in a traditional "romantic" way. These are damaged people, and the director's habit of zooming in on faces conveys their somewhat unstable chemistry. There's a shot of her suddenly popping up behind him on his morning run that's so well-timed it's both funny and slightly scary (it's a bit like the moment Woody Allen ambushes ex-wife Meryl Streep on a crowded avenue in Manhattan). The jittery mood recalls Russell's previous film, The Fighter, where no family get-together could conclude without at least one brawl.
The handheld camera wades right into the yammering fray at home, where De Niro, a bookie with OCD, keeps asking his son to spend time, even though he's clueless about how to talk to him. His superstitious rituals around every Eagles game indicate just how nuts he is: he believes he can affect the team's results just so long as no one goes "messing up the juju". It's a definite weakness in the film's last quarter that a huge bet on one such result is set up as a dramatic crux. People awaiting the outcome of a sports game is never as nailbiting as film-makers want us to think.
Yet it's confounding that as the film takes on a more conventional shape, the mismatched destinies of Pat and Tiffany really begin to matter to us. Without giving away the plot, her insistence on his keeping to their dance-competition deal gathers in urgency, and eventually in meaning. So even though the shouty confrontational style of their talk can get on your nerves, their commitment to dealing with their "crazy sad shit" becomes weirdly, unexpectedly moving. De Niro weighs in with a fine performance, mannered in the old way but funny with it, and Chris Tucker – whom I never believed it would be possible to like, or even watch, after the Rush Hour movies – is winningly modest as a close friend of Pat's from the mental hospital. See it in the wrong mood and you might hate this film. But I have to say it sneaked through my defences.