For most of its running time, Silver Linings Playbook fills the screen with people who don’t get along. So much time, in fact, that when we see them enjoy themselves, it feels like a small miracle.

Then again, the story is crowded with people who are dysfunctional in some form or shape. Pat Solitano Sr (Robert De Niro), whose problems are relatively minor in the scheme of things, is a gambler and sports nut who has been permanently banned from the Eagles stadium for fighting. His son Jr (Bradley Cooper) has just gotten out of a mental institution (against medical advice), where he was committed for extreme bipolar disorder resulting in a meltdown where he beat his wife’s lover half to death. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the girl he meets at a friend’s place, is still dealing with her husband’s death — she used to deal with it through extreme promiscuity, but has calmed down a bit since then. The extended cast of characters bring their own baggage. Perhaps the only one without her own baggage is Pat Jr’s mom Dolores (Jackie Weaver), but living in this environment can’t be easy.  That she manages to look cheerful for the most part is another miracle in itself. Pat’s mantra after getting out of the mental institution has been to look for the silver lining (get in shape, get his wife back etc.) — he ought to be taking notes from his mom, who has the Hunt Brothers beat in cornering the market for silver.

So you realize that when you put these people together, you’re unlikely to get scene after scene of sunny laughter. The strange thing is, they are so intensely, uncompromisingly themselves that they make for fairly compelling viewing.  To observe these people trying to get on with their lives would be an interesting experience in and as of itself, but to tell an actual story cannot be easy, what with all of them getting in their own and each other’s way all the time.

What makes the story move, really, is the sheer force of nature that is Tiffany. It’s amazing how well Jennifer Lawrence does here, given how many notes she has to hit over the course of the film — grief, anger, need, ferocity, tenderness and the occasional scintilla of joy, all wrapped up inside this weird package. And despite all that complexity, she makes us empathize with her anyway. We search for a happy ending in this fruitcake factory of a situation simply because we want her to have one. Well, her and Pat Sr, in whose awkward, obsessive-compulsive character, De Niro mines a vein of sweetness that is as unexpected as it is gratifying.

When that ending does come (and to be honest, this is one place where the creaking of the plot machinery can be heard above the voices of the characters), we cheer for these two more than we cheer for anyone else. As far as this story is concerned, these guys are the silver lining. Pat Jr gets it in the end. Dolores knew all along. Maybe that’s what sanity is all about.

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