I could hardly be described as the world’s biggest fan of writer-director David O. Russell, whose previous hits include Three Kings (1999), I Heart Huckabees (2004), and the Oscar-winning The Fighter (2010) (which I skipped). So I was considerably shocked to find myself enraptured by his new film Silver Linings Playbook, a blue-collar romantic comedy with roots in the screwball classics of the ’30s and ’40s; it has the same sense of speed and wit, underwritten by real emotion, that makes films like The Shop Around the Corner and Bringing Up Baby so satisfying. Once I began thinking about Silver Linings Playbook within the context of this genre, all of my initial resistance and frustration with the film fell away, so that by the time it reached its almost laughably neat ending, in which we see everyone and everything in its right place, I realized that it had gotten it exactly right. Outside of this genre, the kinds of sudden emotional reversals, improbable coincidences, grand gestures and neat resolutions that stud Silver Linings Playbook would feel absurd, but within the world of screwball comedy they’re necessary conventions, and Russell deploys them elegantly. He may not be Preston Sturges, but he has a good sense of how to balance sentiment with comedy, and how to give audiences a giddy high by mixing the two.
As in every true screwball comedy, the couple stands at the center of Silver Linings Playbook. All of the film’s tiresome secondary plots about football season and the Philadelphia Eagles and mental illness and father-son bonding and a blowhard cop feel extraneous by comparison. Thankfully, the film gradually either drops them or finds ways to assimilate them into its marriage plot, so that by the third act everything has begun to crystallize around the burgeoning romance of its leads, played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. He’s a manic-depressive trying to get back on his feet after a nervous breakdown; she’s recently lost both her job and her husband, and indicates that she has her own history with anxiety and depression. They’re a cagey, high-strung pair, and their scenes together have a dizzying out-of-control feel, as they careen from flirtation to antagonism. They laugh and fight and dance around each other, literally and metaphorically (she’s training him to be her partner in a dance competition); eventually they discover that they love each other.
The plot is so familiar from so many other movies that it should feel cliché, but it’s written and acted so winsomely that it feels simply classic. And of all the solid performances in the film, Lawrence’s is the one we walk away remembering. She has a volatile energy and a certain wise-ass charm in the early scenes that gives way to an emotional nakedness that’s genuinely affecting. I’ve admired Lawrence in previous films, but I never thought she would make me think of Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve in the way that she blends a certain hard-edged defensiveness with warmth and vulnerability. Like Stanwyck in that film, Lawrence doesn’t just make you laugh and break your heart—she makes you laugh while she’s breaking your heart. She’s an undeniably powerful force in a film that’s likely to be as satisfying as anything else to come out of a major Hollywood studio this season.