Silver Linings Playbook (trailer above) is a thoroughly wonderful movie that holds you captive for an up-close and personal two hours with wounded, middle-class Philadelphians struggling to navigate each other’s emotional glitches. Unappetizing as that may sound, what seems sour at first soon develops into some complex and deeply satisfying comfort food. This story about damaged men prone to violent outbursts and a widow in deep grief is an uplifting masterpiece of tenderness and grace. There’s even dancing.

Native Philadelphian Bradley Cooper (see the recent CBS Sunday Morning profile) stars as Pat, a man with a bipolar disorder, fresh out of an eight-month stay in a Baltimore psychiatric facility. He was put there after committing a violent assault. He is still married, but his wife Nikki, a high school English teacher, has a restraining order against him. He plans to swiftly win her back by reading the books she teaches.

Pat’s dad, Pat Sr., has lost his job and is now hoping to roll the money he’s making from bookmaking into his sketched-out cheesesteak restaurant. A die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fanatic with a whole set of game day rituals and superstitions overlaying his obsessive-compulsive disorder, he’s been banned from Lincoln Financial Field for beating guys up. Played by Robert De Niro, Pat Sr. is a fermented brew of good-hearted honor and broken dreams. De Niro is a wonder to watch, with his every wrinkle and gesture drawing you closer to this gentle, nervous patriarch. Pat Sr. is constantly coaxing others to sit with him and watch the game, often without success.

One of the effects of David O. Russell‘s directing (he also adapted the outstanding screenplay from Matthew Quick’s novel) is a mild sense of claustrophobia, of being stuck in close quarters with these somewhat buggy people. This starts right away, when Pat’s mom Dolores (Jacki Weaver) picks Pat up at the Baltimore hospital.

The atmosphere back at home is spot-on. The aging furniture and wallpaper of Pat’s parents’ working class home are so authentic you can smell them. Everything from its portrait of Jesus to the Sinatra Christmas song is exactly right. You leave the theater craving crabby snacks and homemades even though you’re not sure what they are. (I had to search out a crabby snacks recipe and a recipe for homemades afterward.)

When Pat needs fresh air, he gets it by going out for a run, wearing a garbage bag over his activewear in order “to sweat.” On one of these runs, he reconnects with his pal Ronnie (John Ortiz), whose wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) has a recently widowed sister named Tiffany.

Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Tiffany Maxwell, is outstanding in this movie. We did not see The Hunger Games, but liked her very much in Winter’s Bone. Here she is a dark and beautiful mixture of crushing pain and triumphant hope. Lawrence cuts through insincerity like an apathetic chainsaw, yet she’s as eager and vulnerable as a child.

Beyond its terrific central cast, Silver Linings Playbook has some fascinating smaller roles too — including Chris Tucker as Danny, Pat’s friend and “jailhouse lawyer” from the hospital, and also Anupam Kher as Dr. Cliff Patel, Pat’s therapist.

Not only is Silver Linings Playbook listed among this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, the movie’s nominations also include David O. Russell for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, Bradley Cooper for Best Actor, Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress, Robert De Niro for Best Supporting Actor, Jacki Weaver for Best Supporting Actress, and Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers for Best Film Editing. So, if you’re hoping to take in as many Oscar nominees as possible before February 24, you can check a lot of boxes here in one sitting.

Described as a romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook is much more than that. Time and again, the movie detours from that standard formula to explore refreshing possibilities. It becomes a heroic adventure of the psyche which climbs patiently beyond disturbing old monsters and familiar quirks toward a gentle acceptance, compassion, and optimism — “Excelsior,” to quote Pat’s motto.

I rate this film four stars out of four.

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