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A wonderful 'Silver Linings Playbook'

| Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence do a lot of running in “Silver Linings Playbook.” They crash into each other on leafy suburban Philadelphia streets, out for their morning laps, their evening laps, huffing, puffing, jostling, fighting.

They're trying to shed weight, these two. Not physical weight (although Cooper's character complains his meds are making him fat), but the burdens they're carrying around in their heads. Pat Solitano (Cooper, in an amazingly fierce, funny performance) and his uninvited tagalong, Tiffany, are damaged goods.

A head-spinning wonder of a movie about love, pain, reinvention, rehabilitation and the totemic power of a National Football League franchise, “Silver Linings Playbook” opened the Philadelphia Film Festival last month. It is, without doubt, a transcendent endeavor, from its exhilaratingly smart screenplay - director David O. Russell's adaptation of the novel by Matthew Quick - to the unexpected and moving turns of its two leads. And from everybody else (Robert De Niro! Jacki Weaver! Chris Tucker! Anupam Kher!) in its remarkable cast.

It's comic, it's tragic, it dives into a world wholly recognizable, and it springs from a great Hollywood tradition: the storm-tossed romance. Boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated by momentous conflict, boy and girl overcome obstacles to get together and live happily ever after ... or do they?

Pat Solitano is a high school teacher who, in the opening of “Silver Linings Playbook,” is just out from eight months in a Baltimore psych ward. He found his wife with another guy, he lost it - and then he lost his job. So it's home to his parents' house - Pat Sr. (De Niro, doing his best work in years) and Dolores (Weaver), a couple whose world turns on Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles. On game days, Pat Sr. sits at the TV (he's barred from attending the games; that's another story), his Eagles kerchief folded just so, wearing his Eagles sweater, betting big money on his team.

Eagles fever has rubbed off on his son - how could it not? So has a certain manic temperament. Pat Jr., diagnosed with bipolar disorder, reports to his therapist's office (the wonderfully wry Kher), hears Stevie Wonder crooning “My Cherie Amour,” and goes ballistic. That was their song - Pat and his wife, Nikki. And now he's got a restraining order - he can't be within 500 feet of her. The song is a trigger. There are plenty of others.

And then, at a dinner, Pat meets Tiffany. She, too, can rattle off a list of SSRIs and their respective side effects. She, like Pat, is functioning (just) - and functioning without filters. She'll say what's on her mind, no matter how wildly inappropriate or impolitic.

Pat and Tiffany seem destined for each other - except that Pat wants nothing more than to reconcile with Nikki, the love of his life. And Tiffany has her own issues: She's a young widow, she suffers from depression and low self-esteem, she sleeps around. And so the courtship begins.

Russell surveyed the crazy tumult of another fractious family in “The Fighter,” and he excels at wrangling large casts into tight, propulsive story lines (“I Huckabees,” “Three Kings”). The dialogue here ricochets. The emotions hit you sideways. And the specificity of the environment these characters inhabit - like the Boston boroughs the folks in “The Fighter” hailed from - adds depth and dimension

On a Halloween date over raisin bran and tea (how romantic!), Pat and Tiffany take psychological potshots at each other. Their hurt and longing are palpable, a common bond they refuse to acknowledge. By the time she's persuaded him to be her partner in a dance competition, and they're at her place rehearsing moves to the croon of Bob Dylan's “Girl from the North Country Fair,” we're completely on their side. These two wackos need each other, and we need them to realize that fact.

In “Winter's Bone,” the film that first brought her acclaim, Lawrence showed the instincts of a fine actor - she could project inner fire and vulnerability without overselling things. But her performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” is a revelation - she takes this broken woman and brings her to life with wit, grace and deep, dark currents of heartache. Cooper and Lawrence together are, well, awesome.

So is “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Steven Rea is a movie critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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