GREG'S GRADE: A-
Pat Solatano's (Bradley Cooper) life appears to be in shambles. After eight months in a Baltimore mental hospital, where he's been diagnosed as bipolar, he's lost both his job and his house. He lost his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), earlier—finding her in the shower with another man triggered the breakdown that sent him away. She now has a restraining order against him.
He comes home to Philadelphia to stay with his parents: caring, supportive Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who is obsessive-compulsive, highly superstitious and a voracious gambler—a potentially nightmarish combination when he's watching his beloved Philadelphia Eagles on TV (he's been banned from the stadium for fighting).
Yet Pat is upbeat and optimistic. "Excelsior!" is his motto. He knows he can win Nikki back by bettering himself, which he sets out to do through a combination of physical fitness and reading the books on the syllabus of her high school English class.
He finds himself drawn to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who lives in his neighborhood with a history of her own psychological issues. The sparks between them are instant, their two brands of crazy performing a sort of balancing act together. Pat, vowing to remain faithful to his wife, rejects her advances. Tiffany has semi-regular contact with Nikki, however, and the two make a deal: Pat will be her partner in an upcoming ballroom dancing competition in exchange for Tiffany's help in communicating with Nikki.
Much of the movie's outcome hinges upon this competition and a crucial game between the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. That doesn't exactly sound cinematic, but director David O. Russell ("The Fighter"), who also wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Matthew Quick, wrings a considerable amount of drama from it.
It's also a very funny movie, though the humor comes from a darker, more serious place than the zany hijinks of a typical romantic comedy.
As one would expect, Cooper, who became a leading man thanks to "The Hangover," handles the comedy with ease. But it's his dramatic work that makes Pat real, and though his mental stability often hangs on whether he's on or off his meds, and there are times when you just want to tell him to shut up or smack him in the head for wearing a football jersey to a dinner party, we're rooting for this guy to get his life together and see what's standing right in front of him.
Lawrence, who owns an Oscar nomination ("Winter's Bone") and has the lead in a big-time franchise ("The Hunger Games"), does maybe her best work yet, conveying the pain, sadness and tender heart beneath Tiffany's often abrasive exterior.
Best of all, let's welcome back Robert De Niro to the realm of superior acting after his exile with the Fockers and even worse movies. To say this is the best work he's done in years doesn't begin to tell the story. Wrapped up in his own issues, Pat Sr. is all but oblivious to his son's plight and the blatantly obviously fact that he and his son share a great deal of their mental makeup—however well-intentioned they may be, they repeatedly fail to see how destructive their actions can be to those around them. De Niro, too, creates a character who earns our sympathy.
Chris Tucker also does good work as Danny, Pat's fellow patient and friend, as does Anupam Kher as Pat's therapist.
Funny without being glib, serious without being pretentious or depressing, this is a mature movie with fully realized characters and fine performances. And if its ending is predictable, at least it follows its own unique playbook to get there.
Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. 122 minutes.