It was literally a dark and stormy night when I saw David O. Russell's latest, "Silver Linings Playbook," but that hurricane rain at least helped to rinse away some of the feeling that I had been utterly, completely used. Maybe you too have experienced that tawdry sensation of watching a film, laughing and crying at the appropriate times, only to have it suddenly occur to you that you've invested yourself in a lazy, manipulative fairy tale, one almost totally devoid of substance. And I can't really pinpoint what ultimately yanked me from the escapism, but it made me wish for something more truthful and much less misogynistic.
Russell's follow-up to 2010's Oscar-winning "The Fighter" stars Bradley Cooper as Pat, who we meet as he's leaving the Philadelphia psychiatric ward he was sentenced to after beating his wife's lover. It's a premature exit, we learn, but the bipolar Pat's plan is to bunk with his mildly smothering parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) until he gets back on his feet, a task that includes winning back his estranged wife. Nearly everything that Pat does is with an eye toward that romantic delusion, including the dinner he attends where he trades unfiltered screwball banter with the gorgeous Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a snappish young widow with her own big issues.
And as more details about Tiffany emerged, I realized what was happening here: yet another variation on what film critic Nathan Rabin dubbed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a male-fantasy archetype who redeems troubled boys with her bold, quirky ways. Tiffany is pushy, hot, argumentative, a tiny bit violent, and of course bisexual, having been fired from her last job for having depression sex with everyone at the office. (Because giving her a less demeaning exit wouldn't enable Pat to defend her honor.) And Tiffany's final amazing quality is somewhat of a plot point that I won't give away. It's usually men who write characters like this, and there is rarely much honesty to these fabrications, designed to attract lost, horny dudes but in real life too obnoxious to keep them for long.
But I digress. Wait; no, I don't. Remarkably clichéd and borderline offensive in its simplistic handling of mental illness, "Silver Linings Playbook" unfolds exactly as you would expect it to, with tranquil interludes, mad dashes, a politically correct assortment of acquaintances, and some super-screechy family drama. There are probably some excellent performances within all that noise; De Niro in particular does compelling work as Pat's OCD dad, a frustrating role that, again, doesn't seem like anyone real. Julia Stiles is wasted as Tiffany's castrating sister, though none of the female parts — including "Animal Kingdom" nominee Weaver as Pat's helplessly doting mom — are terribly flattering. And for his first non-"Rush Hour" role in 15 YEARS, Chris Tucker gets to show white people how to dance.
Now, you probably can't tell from reading this that by the denouement I was as choked up as the rest of the audience, the contrivances having worked their calculated magic. Movies like "Flirting With Disaster" and "I Heart Huckabees" have shown Russell to be a very interesting filmmaker, but "Silver Linings Playbook," adapted by Russell from a novel by Matthew Quick, is not only sort of generic, but sadly uninspired. The highlight of the movie might actually be Cooper; he transforms those big blue eyes of his into something palpably unhinged, and he sustains it throughout the film. His Pat feels lived-in and broken, though not irreparably so, pinning his hopes on what didn't work before because the choice between familiarity and fear is a tricky one.