This riotously entertaining comedy finds its tears and laughter in the budding romance of a recently discharged mental patient (and violent felon) with a grieving widow who has been working out her sorrow by fucking everyone in sight. This is tricky material that, in other hands, could have been tasteless and crude; writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter), working from the novel by Matthew Quick, respects the mental-illness aspects of the story and finds the comedy and romance in the absurd details of how mental illness affects the characters.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) is pulled out of the loony bin by his Mom (Jacki Weaver) against the advice of his doctors. Eight months earlier, he beat the living crap out of his wife’s lover; subsequently, he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has been heavily medicated and undergoing therapy. As presented, this is edgy rather than a bummer; Cooper manages the rare feat of being frightening and likable at the same time.
Two of his married-couple friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) invite Pat for dinner and try to set him up with the wife’s sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). It’s a clash of the mental-meds titans; Tiffany is clearly smitten, but Pat is so cocooned in his unhealthy obsession with his own wife that he can’t see what is in front of him.
Russell’s direction is purposefully kinetic; there are some big-deal action directors who could learn a lot from the way Russell shoots his human-scaled dramas. Playing off the energy of his actors, Russell loves to show his characters on the move—sometimes they’re in cars, but mostly they’re on foot. Pat spends half the movie literally running away from someone or something; in dramatic terms, of course, he’s running away from himself. The damaged Tiffany is drawn to this energy; the tension (and drama) lies in whether they’re going to find some equilibrium in this attraction or smash into each other.
The plot turns on Pat wanting Tiffany to get a message to his estranged wife (who has a restraining order on him), and Tiffany wanting Pat to be her partner in a dance contest. So we get letter writing scenes and dance rehearsals, which are both engaging.
The vitality in the scenes between Lawrence and Cooper extends to the rollicking set pieces Russell stages at an Eagles football game, and in the living rooms of the couple’s friends and family. The cast is terrific. Along with Weaver, there’s Robert De Niro as Pat’s bookie dad, and Chris Tucker as Pat’s mental-ward buddy. These high-voltage performers are both uncharacteristically underplaying here, a tribute to the director’s vision.
This narrative is told from Pat’s perspective, and as a result the audience isn’t clued in to everything that’s really going on. But it isn’t that the director isn’t playing fair with viewers; it’s that the audience gets sucked into Pat’s orbit, too. Which makes the inevitable happy ending quite satisfying.