Writer/Director David O. Russell tells relatively straight forward stories in slightly left-of-center fashion. His Gulf War heist film, Three Kings, about U.S. soldiers stealing a dictator's loot, somehow transforms from a thrilling comedy into an affecting drama about helping fellow human beings in need. His last film, The Fighter, about a boxer struggling to prove himself all while working toward "the big fight", follows all the familiar underdog story beats, but is arguably more of an examination of an intensely dysfunctional family. These films are Russell's takes on heist films and sports films respectively, which would make Silver Linings Playbook Russel's slightly left-of-center take on a romantic comedy.
The film opens with Pat (Bradley Cooper) being driven home from a court ordered stay at a mental institution by his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver in a subtly perfect performance.) Pat's forced stay was the result of a violent episode that has since alienated him from his wife. Now that he's back in the world, it is his life's obsession to improve himself and win her back. On his regimented journey toward self-betterment, Pat meets recent widower Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), herself prone to exhibiting destructive behavior worrisome to her family. Pat believes she may even be crazier than he is. Tiffany's tangential relationship to Pat's wife however encourages him to engage in a friendship with her and while she doesn't seem to mind his admitted ulterior motives, she decides to use his vulnerability to her advantage, forcing him to become her partner in her own current constructive outlet - a ballroom dance competition.
Both Cooper and Lawrence are solid here, avoiding the easy slip of having their characters being little more than eccentric caricatures. Lawrence as Tiffany doesn't just say rude things, she's sad and curious and angry and fragile - in my opinion, earning every bit of her recent Oscar nomination. Cooper also crafts a man who is more than just mood swings. There's a lot going on behind his eyes - suppressed and unsuppressed rage, sadness, and an endearing and often times heartbreaking hopefulness.
A particularly strong showcase for both begins in a diner where Pat and Tiffany are sussing each other out, discovering the other's buttons, and thanks to their unapologetic natures, pushing them. Tiffany in particular discovers just how broken Pat is and her realization of her power over him, as well as her sympathy for him, is the kind of stuff that makes this film a gem.
Also of note, of course, is Robert DeNiro as Pat's father, who is mostly able to hide issues of his own behind his befuddled but sincere attempts to understand his confusing son.
The end of the second act introduces a jarringly conventional story device that in any other film probably wouldn't have felt so out of place, but here felt oddly contrived only because the rest of the film had been operating in such an un-apologeticly grounded way. Fortunately, it all leads back to a solid place with a third act that's sweet and weird and spastic and truthful - just like its characters.