Might Bradley Cooper finally get his due? Since making his first real big-screen splash as the preppy Maryland meathead in 2005's Wedding Crashers, this TV actor turned movie star has been fighting an image that's proven pretty tough to shake. While he clearly wants to be taken seriously and sincerely as a real Actor, his smarmy turns in the Hangover films and his misplaced swagger in junk like The A-Team has made him a hard guy to like. There's a certain prickish charm about him, but he's not exactly sympathetic. Now, though, in the second phase of his movie career (which will still include yet another Hangover movie), Cooper is doing the careful work of repackaging himself. Next year he'll appear in Derek Cianfrance's Toronto Film Festival hit The Place Beyond the Pines, he recently wrapped a Depression-era drama directed by Oscar-winner Susanne Bier, and right now he's starring in Silver Linings Playbook, a quirky-in-a-good-way romantic comedy about a man learning to cope with his bipolar disorder. In the film, Cooper pulls off a daring bit of reverse psychology — in making his character frustrating, grating, and a little scary, he somehow wins us over. Though he's playing another jerk, this time the performance is unvarnished and without any of the slick stuff that has been so off-putting in the past. It's the first real bit of capital-A Acting that I've seen from Mr. Cooper and it comes as a welcome, if a bit jarring, surprise.
Welcome but jarring may be a good way to describe the entirety of Silver Linings Playbook, which feels like part two in writer/director David O. Russell's earnest series of portraits depicting the rambling dynamics of blue collar East Coast families and communities. In his grounded but rousing The Fighter, Russell explored the frayed corners of Lowell, Massachusetts with a sensitive documentarian's eye. The authenticity was not a stunt nor was it pandering, it was actually rather frank and honest. He brings the same kind of soberness to the residential Philadelphia of Silver Linings, a place where the houses aren't too nice but aren't operatically squalid heaps, where the people are smart enough and capable enough without being noble "regular folk" bathed in the pitying glow of Hollywood. They are, in fact, just regular folks, though they are given a boost of fizz and color to suit Russell's antic needs.
At the start of the film, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, we meet Pat, a mid-30s guy who's leaving a mental institution after eight months, against doctors' wishes but within his legal rights. You see, Pat was checked in after assaulting his estranged wife's lover in a jealous, manic rage, and it was either the loony bin or jail. Pat has tried to make the most of his time, losing a considerable amount of weight and clearing his head in preparation for his one true goal in the outside world: Winning back Nikki, his wife, and thus somehow repairing all collateral damage. We in the audience can tell that he's more than a little deluded about the likelihood of this actually happening; we can see it in the creased, nervous smiles of his doting mother (a pleasant Jacki Weaver) and the rebukes of his father, Pat Sr., a football nut who runs a sports book out of his house and who shows some signs of clinical obsession (manifested as near-pathological superstition) and fits of anger himself. Pat Sr. is played by Robert De Niro, and it's a testament to Russell's talent as an actor's director that he coaxes not only such a fine, detailed performance out of Cooper, but of venerable old Bob De Niro too. This is probably De Niro's most expressive and fully felt work in years; gone is the autopilot De Niro of so many forgettable recent duds, replaced by an actual character with sides and angles and shading and depth. Pat Jr., as played by Cooper, is a man stunted by coddling and by his own routinely thwarted sense of outrage; he's exhausted with himself but is, of course, incapable of complete personality overhaul. De Niro's Pat Sr. has transferred some of his own similar frustration onto his son, and so the two are interlocked in a rough pas de deux of magical thinking, insisting things are better when they clearly aren't, then either raging or collapsing into bitter tears when forced to confront that reality. Mom hovers around her two hysterical men (there's another more successful brother we meet only briefly) while offering them homemade snacks made specially for whatever big game happens to be on at the moment. This is a family functional in all of its dysfunction, as most families tend to be in one way or another.
Things begin to change for Pat Jr., and eventually Pat Sr., when he meets a local girl named Tiffany, a young widow with some mental issues of her own who happens to be the sister-in-law of Pat's best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz, an affable hoot). Tiffany is played by Jennifer Lawrence, the committed young actress who is wise beyond her years but still possessed of a goofy, coltish enthusiasm that makes her winsome instead of precocious. Tiffany is a sharp, mordant woman who socializes as bluntly as Pat does, and the two make a near-immediate crazy person-to-crazy person connection. The bulk of the movie concerns a push and pull between them — Tiffany's sister (Julia Stiles, excellent and playing completely against type in one brief scene) is friends with Nikki, so Pat wants Tiffany to use her connections to slip Nikki a letter that reads like a manifesto for his new and improved life. Contacting Nikki is a violation of Pat's restraining order, so Tiffany wants something in return for the favor. She's looking to compete in a dance competition in Philadelphia around Christmastime, so if he dances, she'll pass on the letter. And so they start dancing, and sparring, and jogging, and talking. Meanwhile at home, Pat Sr. is making big, irrational bets and is becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea that his son is his good luck charm. What began as a way to include his son in his ritual has now become the key centerpiece of that ritual. It's a crazy demand put on a crazy person and the whole fraught mess eventually erupts in a cacophony of comical male despair.
This is, yes, mostly a comedy, though the underlying seriousness of these characters' mental plights is rarely not felt. Russell has made an affectionate, careful film here, one that doesn't sensationalize mental illness or family strife but still wrings knowing comedy and sentiment out of both. Well, he doesn't sensationalize it until the film's too-tidy ending, when things wrap up awfully neatly and what began as a complex, idiosyncratic look at a man on the mend becomes a hurried blue collar happily ever after. It's a little surprising, and jarring, to see Russell trafficking in what could almost, almost be called treacle; I can't say it suits him. That said, Silver Linings is well beyond most of its peers in the family homecoming genre, and makes a strong case as a romantic comedy to boot. But perhaps its biggest distinction is its place at the top of the Bradley Cooper oeuvre. Here, finally, is the actor that Hollywood has been insisting he is for years. He works well with his scene partners, giving and taking and existing wholly in the natural flow of things, and only rarely do we see that old cold flicker of smugness flash in his eyes. For such a busy, mannered performance it's a remarkably humble one. So let's hope all the praise he's earning — which, I suspect, will lead to some major award nominations come January — doesn't go right back to his head.