Dir. David O. Russell
(2012, R, 122 minutes)

Silver Linings Playbook made a strong impression at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award. I’m markedly less enthusiastic. It’s a generally pleasing but mostly by-the-numbers comedy about a couple whose romance follows a trajectory we expect from the start. Often the characters behave more like players hitting their marks than people in organic relationships. There are few surprises. Many of the plot complications are contrived.

Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, it’s written and directed by David O. Russell, who previously made another popular film that didn’t work as well for me, The Fighter. Like that film, Silver Linings takes place in a working-class neighborhood – in Philadelphia this time, instead of Boston – but instead of boxing it all comes down to the big dance competition.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, who spent eight months in a mental institution following a violent incident set off by his wife’s extramarital affair. He’s bipolar and still in need of intensive treatment, but his mother (Jacki Weaver) refuses to leave him there one day longer than the court requires.

Pat is still pining for his wife, Nikki, and seems to be the only person who thinks there’s any hope of reconciling with her. She has a restraining order against him, and the police are regularly on-hand to enforce it. While looking forward to their reunion, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a sexually compulsive young widow who may be just as damaged as he is.

One of the screenplay’s problems is that it explains too much. Instead of letting the audience learn the circumstances of Pat’s institutionalization naturally, Russell plops it down during one therapy scene where all the dialogue is exposition for the audience’s benefit. Later, Tiffany has a speech in which she spells out her own emotional problems and their cause much too neatly; from that point forward she is rigidly defined, and the actress and audience have nowhere else to go with her.

One character is left with some welcome ambiguity: Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who is high-functioning but also shows signs of psychological problems. He jealously guards his personal space and becomes anxious when he loses track of a single empty envelope, suggesting obsessive compulsive tendencies, and he is so volatile, we learn, that he was banned for life from the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium. Might he have passed some of his problems down to his son?

But eventually Pat Sr. becomes another vehicle of the plot. He has a gambling problem, and at one point makes a bet that threatens his livelihood, but what seems like a major family crisis becomes just a sitcom setup for the film’s romantic climax. That’s what keeps the film from taking off; even when the stakes are high, it all ends up feeling like just part of the routine.