Silver Linings Playbook is one of the odd gems that defies the formula and goes for a warts-and-all approach to storytelling that feels refreshingly like real life. It's nice not knowing exactly how things are going to play out, and in the end it makes the payoff even sweeter.
The opening scene finds our leading man, Pat (Bradley Cooper), leaving a mental hospital against court orders with his well-intended mother (Jacki Weaver). Upon arriving home, we meet Pat's obsessive compulsive father Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) whose primary income comes from gambling. From the get-go there is an air of tension in the house: Pat may or may not go off his rocker at any moment, and it seems entirely likely that Pat Sr. is going to get into trouble with his bookmaking. It doesn't take long for either of these things to happen.
We quickly learn that Pat's breakdown was triggered when he discovered his wife in the shower with another man. A violent episode ensued, resulting in Pat's diagnosis with bipolar disorder, institutionalization, loss of employment, and, naturally, a restraining order he seems determined to violate. While it's clear that Pat once led a "normal" life, it's difficult to see how he's ever going to reclaim that version of himself. His frenetic energy jangles your nerves through the screen, and his random outbursts and sudden impulses are enough to give anyone pause.
With the local police keeping a close eye on Pat's activities and Pat giving them every reason for concern, the sense of uncertainty in this family's life is palpable. How can this bright, vibrant young man hope to get better if he refuses to take his medication or let go of his estranged wife? Everything he does is fueled by his desire to learn about or make contact with a woman who is (rightfully) terrified of him. Even a seemingly benign dinner with friends is really a ploy to prove that he is doing better and can behave himself, lest they might tell his wife that he seems to be doing okay. His laser beam focus is only diverted by his friend's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a troubled young woman who recently lost her husband. The two strike up an awkward, unlikely friendship that is only cemented when Tiffany promises to deliver a letter to Pat's wife. In return Pat must be her partner in a regional dance competition. Though driven by ulterior motives, Pat finds direction in their training sessions and in Tiffany's tough love. (Imagine Dirty Dancing if Johnny Castle and Baby had just been released from the psych ward.)
There's a lot going on in Silver Linings Playbook: a broken marriage, a possible new romance, mental illness, gambling...dancing. The tone is wildly inconsistent and vaguely unsettling, yet it still feels authentic, as do the characters. As Pat, Bradley Cooper breaks out of his pretty boy image and proves his acting chops, and Jennifer Lawrence is equally impressive as Tiffany, a feisty yet vulnerable woman who could have easily been unlikable. The end result is a movie that can only be described as a pleasant surprise.