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Writer/director David O. Russell has been tackling difficult family issues since his breakout comedy/drama SPANKING THE MONKEY back in 1994. He followed that up with the more whimsical FLIRTING WITH DISASTER. His most recent hit, the based on a true story THE FIGHTER, also dealt with a family in crisis. His newest screen work, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, again has the family dynamic as its focus and concerns a subject that has been touched on more frequently in the cinema recently: mental illness. Going back to THE THREE FACES OF EVE to A BEAUTIFUL MIND the movies have attempted to portray this subject in a compassionate manner. And with LININGS, Russell (working from Matthew Quick’s novel) attempts to meld this with a romantic (occasional) comedy. It’s quite the tightrope walk.

In the opening scenes of the film we meet Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) as he prepares to leave a Baltimore mental health facility. After a violent episode with his wife, Pat was been remanded there and a restraining order was issued. His mother Dolores (Jackie Weaver) signs him out and drives him back to the family home in Philadelphia where they surprise Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), a diehard Eagles fan and sports bookie hoping to open a sandwich shop. Pat soon re-connects with old pal Ronnie (John Oritz), whose wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) insists that Pat come over for Dinner in a few days. Ah, but it’s a set-up! Also at the Dinner is Veronica’s kid sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow also dealing with mental and psychological problems. The two don’t connect romantically, but begin a tenuous friendship. Then Tiffany strikes a deal: she will get a letter from Pat to his estranged wife (he obsessively pine for her) if he will be Tiffany’s dance partner in an upcoming competition. As they train, the damaged pair strive to return to normalcy and perhaps built on this new relationship

To make this tricky subject matter work ,the actors must be capable of bringing these broken characters to life. This exceptional cast hits it out of the park (or perhaps I should say they score a touchdown). The two leads, best known for franchise films (Cooper with the HANGOVER films and Lawrence for the just starting HUNGER GAMES) , truly bring their A game and tread that tricky balance of comedy and dark tragedy. Cooper proves he’s much more than a pretty face (and abs) as this fragile and often violent man in transition. He’s trying so hard to stay upbeat, that his erratic outbursts are heart-wrenching. This is a real guy with big, big problems. The same could be said for Lawrence’s Tiffany except the she uses her sexuality to lash out at the world. Happily her friendship with Pat helps her to focus on life (primarily via dance). Lawrence gives a mature performance that builds on her fine work in WINTER’S BONE. She’s forging quite a career.

The two are backed by a superlative supporting cast bringing this story to vivid life. Oritz scores big laughs as the hen-pecked Ronnie who ‘s always there for his pal. Another pal who garners big laughs is Chris Tucker in a small role as Pat’s group therapy buddy, Danny. He pops up only a few times, but is a very welcome brief comic relief (without resorting to his usual high-pitched shrieking). Weaver is terrific as the polar opposite of her ANIMAL KINGDOM maternal monster. The real stand-out (and a bit of a surprise) is DeNiro in a sympathetic restrained performance as Pat Senior. He truly loves his son and somewhaow believes his son’s problems are a result of his neglect. He desperately wants to connect and bond before it’s too late. Despite his effort he can’t seem to mend his family. Much of his recent work has seemed so much like parody versions of previous roles but his subtle, quiet work here is refreshing. A scene between senior and junior as the elder admits his parental failings is a heartbreaker that should reward him with another Oscar nod.

Russell makes wonderful use of the suburban settings and keeps the story moving at a nice even pace. No showy camera tricks or stylistic flourishes detract from the moving, compelling script and nuanced performances. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is an engaging look at two lost souls that more than desire to find that ‘silver lining’.

4.5 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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