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Silver Linings Playbook

Oscar-nominated peek inside a pair of troubled minds

by Kaori Shoji

Sometimes life falls off its dreary grid and takes on the texture and flavor of strawberry chiffon cake. That’s kind of what happens when watching “Silver Linings Playbook”: The more this romantic comedy-drama about an ex-teacher with mental-health problems and the people around him progresses, the more you’re glad to be alive, gratified to be at the movies and ready to love the world.

I realize this is a monstrously contradictory statement considering that almost everyone in “Silver Linings Playbook” spend most of their screen time disturbed, disordered and confused. These people — a circle of lower-middle-class Philadelphia locals — have huge problems, mostly of the mental variety, and they can get pretty unpleasant.

But director David O. Russell (working from a novel by Matthew Quick) has an unmatchable knack for catching snappish, fly-off-the-handle moments, as demonstrated in his superb previous work “The Fighter.” In Russell’s hands, those moments can turn sweetly funny or tender or vulnerable, and though no one pulls their punches in “Silver Linings Playbook” they somehow always feel like kisses.

This is not to say that the movie, which is nominated for eight Oscars at this weekend’s Academy Awards, preys on the antics of the mentally disabled for feel-good effect, as in Hollywood fare from “Benny & Joon” to “As Good as it Gets” to “The Other Sister.” Rather, it makes sanity and conventional happiness look slightly blah, and in some instances feels like an outright invitation to ditch ordinary existence and join the other camp.

Here that would be the bipolar and sometimes violent Pat (Bradley Cooper from the “Hangover” films), who has recently been released from a state institution, and loud, sex-addicted Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hunger Games”). Check out the hilarious scene of the two at a dinner party held by Tiffany’s sister Veronica (Julia Stiles): The pair discuss their meds at length and ignore their hosts until Tiffany abruptly stands up in the middle of the salad course to announce that she’s “tired” and ready to leave with Pat in tow.

OK, so Tiffany’s social skills need a major overhaul, but at least she knows what she wants and is completely unapologetic about it. Pat, on the other hand, is prickly and unsure about everything, including Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel “A Farewell to Arms.” He gets so infuriated about the ending, he unleashes his anger at four in the morning and then blames the broken window on Hemingway. You gotta love the guy.

Speaking of which, I never thought there would come a day when I wanted to watch Bradley Cooper forever, but “Silver Linings Playbook” has made him a new man. Despite his in-your-face handsomeness and too beautiful sapphire-blue eyes, Cooper as Pat is now a guy you’d be willing to face across a Formica tabletop at an all-night diner without worrying about your own worn-off makeup and dirty hair. The movie has done for Cooper what “In Her Shoes” did for Cameron Diaz: He has conquered his own annoying perfectness to become sad and deluded and gorgeously pathetic.

It’s no wonder Tiffany can’t keep her hands off him or stay away longer than a day or two, no matter how much he ticks her off. At one point she slaps his face so hard his whole body lurches backward in pain. But the slap is charged with erotic longing, and this moment alone should have got the film an R rating.

One more piece of good news: There’s another man in “Silver Linings Playbook” with an extremely high watchability rating. Robert De Niro plays Pat’s dad, Pat Sr., and he’s got his own set of obsessive-compulsive issues. Pat Sr. is obsessed to the core with the Philadelphia Eagles football team and has a whole list of superstitions to stick to, which he believes will get the team on a winning streak. Dad has been banned from the stadium for fighting and is now glued to the TV; between games, he tries to earn a living as a bookie.

His wife, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), works at the mental-health hospital where her son had done his stint; between her family and her patients, Dolores has a wealth of experience in dealing with disorders, and her patience is deeper than the sea. Pat Sr. is grateful to Dolores and earnestly in love with her.

Pat Sr. also gets to proffer this gem of love advice to his son: “When life reaches out at a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back.” De Niro has had a run of pretty bad movies of late, but “Silver Linings Playbook” is a chance to see him in all his glory, when he inhabits a role so completely the mere sight of him in the frame will move you.