"Manipulative" is a dishonest word to use to describe a movie. Every movie is manipulative, or at least tries to be. Every film is trying to coax some sort of an emotion out of you—generally positive, friendly emotions when we're talking about Hollywood product—and successful films earn those emotions. What it comes down to is this: When I mock a movie for being too schmaltzy, I'm really just picking on it for not being skillful enough to win my sympathies.
The premise of Silver Linings Playbook sounds suitably dismissible: A bipolar man named Pat returns home after being incarcerated at a mental institution and immediately sets out trying to win his ex-wife's heart back. His parents are skeptical, especially when Pat becomes close with an emotionally damaged young widow named Tiffany with a connection to his ex. Then, somehow, Pat and Tiffany decide to train for a dance competition. It sounds like the kind of premise that inspired the phrase "Oscar bait," especially when you consider the fact that Pat's father is played by Robert De Niro, and Pat himself is played by Bradley Cooper, the pretty-boy actor who suddenly wants to be taken seriously. It all sounds so terribly—and I mean this in the worst possible way—manipulative.
But I'll be damned if I didn't love—absolutely love—being manipulated by this movie. The biggest surprise is Cooper, who doesn't fall into the actorly trap of drooling all over himself to portray mental illness. Cooper presents Pat's manic episodes as almost logical, except for the weird buzzing going on around his eyes, and the frantic edge that slips into his voice, creating a tense performance that feels fraught with real risk. It's hard to tell when he's being gripped by irrationality, because Pat himself can't tell. Cooper's performance inspires the best acting De Niro has offered up in years, a subtle portrait of an old man with undiagnosed mental problems who somehow managed to make do. He sees those same shades in his son's face, and he's alternately frightened, repulsed, and sympathetic.
But as good as the two men are, Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany is easily the best thing about Playbook. She's tough and damaged and hopeful and sad, all at the same time. She slowly brings light back into Pat's life without ever once devolving into one of those sickening manic pixie dream girls we've come to know and loathe since Cameron Crowe perfected the formula a decade ago. She's not an object, she's a participant in the story, a believable and winning human being.
A lot of the credit has to go to director David O. Russell, whose much-lauded return from Hollywood exile two years ago with The Fighter turns out to have been the first part of a story. Playbook is the happy ending to that story: Whereas The Fighter clung to the structure and clichés of a boxing drama, Playbook carves its own way through the path of three or four different genre pictures. It's as funny and as bizarre as the very best of Russell's work. There's no signature Russell style on display here, because he totally subsumes his vision in service of the story. The film sees the world through Pat's eyes; the camera jostles and clenches into close-ups when he's having one of his scary episodes, but the world becomes gauzy and candle-lit when he's feeling good. And so when the movie finally chooses a genre to land on, it doesn't feel dirty or crass or manipulative. It feels right, like the audience collectively made a series of decisions that worked out for the best. You leave Playbook feeling that everything is going to be okay, just like how Pat assured you it was going to be all along.