Matthew Quick's 2008 novel The Silver Linings Playbook is a funny, unsettling account of a man trying to recover after a mental breakdown. Writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter) turns it into something completely unexpected: one of the best romantic comedies in years.
It's not as though Russell tore up the source material and started over from scratch. His protagonist, Pat (Bradley Cooper), is still an emotionally damaged guy staying with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) after a court-mandated stint in a mental hospital. Pat's still clinging to the belief that if he continues his disciplined self-improvement regimen - exercising regularly, reading great works of literature - he can reunite with his estranged wife. And he still forms an odd friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the widowed sister-in-law of his best friend, whose own recovery from tragedy has involved sleeping with everyone in sight.
Russell's departures from the book steer the movie in a smart direction. He reveals the event that landed Pat in the hospital quite early in the story, whereas Quick saves it for the end. This lets him focus on Pat and Tiffany's connection.
The acting adds depth to the characters as well. Cooper gives the best performance of his career, stepping up his game to complement the ridiculously talented Lawrence. She has nailed her roles following The Hunger Games and her Oscar-nominated work in Winter's Bone, and she's a knockout here as well, wrapping her character's guilt and self-loathing in defensiveness and brutal honesty. The scenes that build Pat and Tiffany's tentative relationship, such as an awkward non-date at a diner, are terrific showcases for these performances. They also show what a nightmare Russell wrote himself into. Exploring a connection between two psychologically broken people is difficult enough. Making it work as an upbeat romance without oversimplifying the characters' disorders is nearly impossible.
But somehow Russell pulls it off. The stakes feel legitimate, even as we discover what could shatter Pat and Tiffany's bond. The real danger zone is during a big dance competition. Tiffany enlists Pat to be her partner in exchange for delivering a letter to his wife, who has obtained a restraining order to keep him at bay. Russell then raises the stakes by having Pat's father make a huge bet on the competition's outcome. The story's crowd-pleasing arc is enough on its own, so this detail seems unnecessary.
But, as in most film romances, the bottom line is simple: Has the story established characters we can root for, and whose happiness depends on each other? Silver Linings Playbook gives us wonderfully crafted characters and makes their journey delightful, even though happiness doesn't come easily for them.