by Angelo Muredda Awards season does strange things to American filmmakers in search of gold hardware. Last year, Alexander Payne delivered his James L. Brooks movie in The Descendants, toning down his tartness for a family drama both more palatable and significantly shoddier than usual. There's a comparable transformation in the cards this year for David O. Russell, who showed signs of mellowing with 2010's The Fighter but was still miles from the Cameron Crowe job he's now pulled off, to surprisingly strong effect, with Silver Linings Playbook, a Jerry Maguire for manic depressives.
Bradley Cooper gets the Tom Cruise showcase this time as Pat, a former schoolteacher sprung out of a mental institution before his court-appointed date by loving mom Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Pat lost it when he found his wife in the shower with the history teacher, and now can't hear Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" (their wedding song, but also the soundtrack to her illicit deed with the teacher) without going on a violent rampage. Things improve a bit once he starts seeing recently-widowed amateur dancer Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and reconnects with his obsessive-compulsive dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a bookmaker and serious gambler who's convinced he can only bond with his son through their shared love of the Philadelphia Eagles.
If the premise sounds convoluted, just wait for the finale, which alternates between a dance competition, a reunion of estranged partners, and a big football game that holds everyone's financial and emotional well-being in the balance. The usually freewheeling Russell's a bit of a strange fit for this intricately plotted, crowd-pleasing material, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, but one of the film's unadulterated pleasures is watching him headbutt his way through the prescribed structure in search of the human messiness that always draws him in. De Niro, for example, gets a dramatic bedside confession, tailor-made for the Oscars, except for the minor detail that he's tearing up about statistics, and only incidentally addressing his son.
In any case, the cast makes up for the familiarity of the last act. Lawrence is characteristically charming as a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl in black, but strangely enough it's Cooper--he of the glazed eyes and eminently punchable face--who really nails it. There's an immediacy and warmth to his performance that's revelatory, given his less-than-impressive body of work to date. That makes him the Jerry Maguire of this piece (lest we forget that Cruise was actually pretty good there, too), in addition to a perfect avatar for his director, who's always come across as something of an emotionally direct scrapper. Programme: Gala Presentation