Everyone has one of those days when nothing seems to go right, calamity looms large or you just can’t seem to get Stevie Wonder’s voice out of your head. To those who have difficulty being optimistic when things look their darkest, just take a page out of Silver Linings Playbook.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has a bright new outlook on life. Sure, he just spent eight months in a mental institution and has been diagnosed as bipolar. Sure, he lost his house, his job, his wife (Brea Bee), and now has to live with his parents (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) as a result of the explosive incident that landed him in the nuthouse. Sure, everything seems to be falling apart for him, but he can’t help but believe he’s only a few steps away from getting his life back on track. With his aversion to medication and refusal to accept reality, the only expectation Pat’s friends and family have for him is another embarrassing episode. No one understands what he’s going through, with the exception of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman from the neighborhood who’s experienced her own recent crisis with the death of her husband, leaving her almost as dysfunctional as Pat. Hanging out with each other strictly platonically, the two come to an arrangement that Tiffany will help Pat win back his spouse if he partners with her in an upcoming ballroom dance competition. Still, you don’t share that much time on the dance floor with someone without bonding, especially if they know what it’s like to have your life in tatters.

He may generally be the calmest and most collected guy in a crowd, but cool-as-a-cucumber Cooper can definitely play hot-headed when he has a mind for it, and his intensity lets you hear the vein in his forehead throbbing once he goes off on a tear. It’s one thing to say you look at the glass that is your life as half-full, but it’s quite another to be seen as positive when you fly off the handle at the ending of A Farewell to Arms, throw a shit-fit at the slightest mention of “My Cherie Amour,” or just retreat into his darkest mental recesses. It would take a strong gal to see Pat at his worst and still want to be around him, and Lawrence is clearly the one to do it. The rising star owns every scene as the frank, antisocial leading lady wracked with so much grief about being a widow at her age that it all too often comes out in the worst ways possible. In Tiffany’s case, this means sleeping with her entire office and losing whatever people skills she may have had, yet Lawrence is never once unappealing as such a difficult personality. Quite the contrary — there are few actresses of her generation who can outshout the guy who played Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta and still make it look easy. Perhaps mental issues are all in the family for the Solitanos. De Niro has one of his best and most understated performances in years as Pat’s dad, a bookie and dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphia Eagles fan whose love for his team has gone beyond mere superstitions like wearing green and white every Sunday and progressed into full-blown obsessive-compulsive rituals which he desperately tries to get his son to take seriously. Hey, don’t mock the juju; it’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.

Pigskin lovers only one bad bet away from losing their house and fitness buffs who always wear a Hefty bag over their sweat suit seem little more than quirky at first glance, but when their behavior ends in bruises and bloodshed, obviously they’re not going to be able to stay under the radar. It makes you wonder how someone like Pat’s sanitarium bunkmate — a nicely subdued Chris Tucker in his first movie without the words “Rush” or “Hour” in the title in 15 years — can’t manage to get out and stay out of the loony bin. The direction by David O. Russell is less concerned with determining who’s truly crazy and focusing in on the dynamics of Pat and Tiffany’s unorthodox courtship, which feels a little odd already given the fact that she ought to be played by someone a few years older, though Lawrence has the kind of range that knows no age. With all the familial upheaval and tricky relationships, Russell’s latest project has a lot in common with his most recent, the hard-hitting The Fighter, but he goes for cute rather than gritty this time in adapting Matthew Quick’s novel. We have no problems connecting with the people at the center of this tale thanks to the efforts of the capable cast, but their troubles often seem more contrived than one would hope. Even if you don’t buy every element of the story, the saving grace is Pat and Tiffany’s dance routine, which, like Abigail Breslin’s wildly inappropriate boogie in Little Miss Sunshine, is worth seeing, even if it’s only a few minutes long.

Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t always seem true-to-life in its depiction of people trying to put their past behind them, violent mood swings notwithstanding. Even with its faults, it’s still one of the better films of the year, consistently well-acted and good-hearted. Hell, if this year’s horror misfire The House at the End of the Street is any indication, any movie with Jennifer Lawrence on its cast list automatically has a silver lining.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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