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‘Silver Linings’ strickes comedy gold

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Pat Solitano is just trying to get his life back.

Upon walking in on his wife with another man, Pat (Bradley Cooper) had a breakdown – a symptom of his bipolar disorder – and assaulted his wife’s lover. When his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) pulls him out of a mental hospital, Pat sets out to use his newfound optimism, embodied by the refrain “Excelsior!,” to win his wife back.

So begins “Silver Linings Playbook,” the new screwball comedy from David O. Russell (“I Heart Huckabees,” “The Fighter”). Pat moves back home with his parents in Philadelphia and enters therapy. He meets a woman named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) with a dark past of her own. She promises to help Pat reconnect with his wife, so long as he does something for her.

In the meantime, Pat’s mother tries to ease her son back into his life while the rampant fandom and superstitions of his father make that adjustment more difficult. Pat Sr. is a diehard Eagles fan, arranging his remote controls to face the proper way to keep the Eagles “jujuice” going. This “OCD behavior,” as Pat Jr. calls it, provoked Pat Sr. to start so many fights at the sport stadium that he has been banned for life.

In one scene, Pat wakes his parents up at 4 a.m. to complain about “A Farewell to Arms.”

“You’re rooting for this guy to survive the war and get with the woman he loves,” Pat pleads. The protagonist does, but then Hemmingway tacks on a darker ending. The world is dark the way it is. Why can’t someone write a book with a happy ending, Pat complains.

Relationships are the key to “Silver Linings Playbook,” and the relationships between Pat and Tiffany and Pat Jr. and Pat Sr. are what make “Silver Linings” stand out.

Pat and Tiffany are misfits among misfits, but they seem to get each other. Many of their scenes together and much of their banter are infused with such manic energy that it is hard to tell if they should kiss or hit each other. The chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence clicks beautifully. Lawrence continues to impress, tackling challenging roles with acting chops beyond her years. Here, she’s tough as nails, but the sympathy Lawrence gives as her anti-social façade begins to peel away is devastating.

“I’m Tommy’s whore widow,” she tells a police officer. “Minus the whore part, sometimes.”

Cooper has never been better, and who thought he had anything so composed and risk-taking, as his performance as Pat, in him? Pat Jr. and Pat Sr. have little to bond over, save football. In one scene, Pat Sr. (the legendary Robert De Niro at his best in years) gives a tearful confession to Pat Jr. for having spent more time with Pat Jr.’s brother than with him. Pat Sr. struggles with how to deal with a bipolar son. De Niro’s performance is honest and indicting, never glancing over the darker parts.

And that’s what makes “Silver Linings” such a remarkable comedy.

It manages to be painfully funny, affirming the goodness and beauty of humanity without taking many, if any, shortcuts. Balancing the tone of the film, which wants all at once to address mental illness while being a screwball comedy, is no small feat, but Russell pulls it off. His characters are wild and loud, providing his thespians to act, with a capital “A.” His camera floats from face to face, almost improvisationally, granting close-ups to moments of pleasure and of pain in equal measure.

The film is an ode to the power of positive thinking, but not a naïve one. From Cooper and Lawrence to De Niro and Weaver, there’s not a bad performance among the bunch. Russell even gets something out of Chris Tucker and Juila Stiles.

Some viewers have complained that “Silver Linings” takes the easy way out. For as bold and challenging as it is at times, the film does seem to wrap up tidily and conventionally. However, the happy ending can only be happy to people involved. Without giving too much away, nothing truly remarkable is achieved, only something deeply significant to Russell’s island of misfit toys. The world is dark the way it is, and as Pat Jr. muses why can’t someone write a happy ending?

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