Dysfunction drama is right on the ball

David O Russell's psycho -comedy 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 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. He means 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 she does have 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?

He's on medication, of course, and he's also seeing a shrink. "You need to get to a quieter place," the shrink tells him. The whole film needs to get to a quieter place, actually, what with Pat and his dad both flying off the handle. De Niro's character, a manic Philadelphia Eagles fan, has been banned from the football 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. 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.

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. 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.

See it in the wrong mood and you might hate this film. But I have to say it sneaked through my defences.

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