Spoiler Level: Low

It's not easy to make a film that is both raggedly messy and predictably formulaic, but David O. Russell has accomplished it with Silver Linings Playbook, his new film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. With a dark, indy-drama setup that somehow resolves into a phony, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook feels like a movie at war with itself. If I didn't know better, I'd say Russell had been handed this by-the-book Hollywood screenplay and decided on a lark to try to do something interesting with it: as it is, Russell wrote the screenplay too, so what we may be seeing is a director at war with himself. Whatever is going on here, however—despite some strong elements and performances—it doesn't completely work.

Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a Philadelphia high-school teacher, who has been diagnosed as bipolar following a violent altercation with his wife Nikki's lover. As the movie opens, Pat's mother (Jacki Weaver) has, against medical advice, signed Pat out of the mental health facility where he has spent the past eight months. Pat, who has lost his job, lost his home, and lost his wife, is nonetheless upbeat, determined to find the proverbial "silver lining," put the pieces of his life back together, and—most importantly—win back his wife.

The fact that Nikki has a restraining order against Pat is something of an inconvenience, until his married friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) introduce him to a depressed young widow named Tiffany (Lawrence). Tiffany shows some interest in Pat—recognizing in him a fellow damaged spirit, apparently—but Pat's interest in Tiffany is that she is friends with Nikki, and can be therefore carry his messages to his one true love. Tiffany agrees to act as go-between, but only on the condition that Pat be her partner in a dance competition. (This is the kind of manipulative prid quo pro deal that only happens in the movies, and its use here is the first sign that Silver Linings Playbook is a much more contrived film than it seems.)

Obsessive love in the movies is romantic, but obsessive love in life is scary and creepy, and for most of Silver Linings Playbook, I thought—and hoped—that Russell's intention was to explore this reality, and clarify the very fine line that separates most romantic movie heroes from being psychopathic stalkers. Cooper is smartly cast for this purpose, and gives a fine performance: he's one of those handsome actors whose natural charm often seems to have a dangerous, unlikable edge to it, and Cooper employs those inherent contradictions in his own film presence well. Pat—with his manic, shallow regime of self-improvement in order to become worthy of his lost love—seems like a twisted, more realistically creepy and volatile version of so many of those Hollywood protagonists. Both his mother and his father (Robert De Niro)—a bookie and Philadelphia Eagles fanatic with more than a touch of OCD himself—are a little scared of him, which turns out to be justified as Pat's unmedicated obsession turns more and more erratic and occasionally violent. (A physical confrontation between Pat and his parents is one of the brutal scenes from which the movie never truly recovers.)

Likewise, Tiffany seems, at first, like a more troubled variation of the "manic pixie dream girl," who inserts herself into the hero's life and turns it right-side up by turning it upside down. Lawrence is a wonderful actress, and there's nothing wrong with her performance here, but her character is an underwritten, deeply problematic figure of male fantasy. (We learn, for example, that she reacted to the death of her husband by going through an ugly phase of bi-sexual nymphomania.) Lawrence does imbue Tiffany with some complexity and depth of emotion, but she's fighting against a script that wants to make her an all-powerful plot device, not a character.

And this is the problem with Silver Linings Playbook: the film seems at first like a dark reflection of a romantic comedy, but then, about halfway through, you realize, no, it actually is a romantic comedy. Pat isn't a satire of the redemptive romantic hero: he's just another example of one. Tiffany isn't meant as a dark commentary on manic pixie dream girls: she's just meant to be one. Suddenly the movie is hurtling towards the big dance competition that will solve all problems and give us a You've Got Mail type of happy ending, and you realize that Russell has put these very troubled characters on some very traditional narrative tracks, without ever dealing with how screwed up they really are. It's not so much that the film goes off the rails, as that it goes on them, without ever stopping to deal with the darkness and messiness it left behind.

Which is a shame, because there was an interesting movie to be had here, if Russell had had the courage of his convictions to make a romantic comedy about real people with real problems, a screwball comedy about real screw-ups. Instead, Silver Linings Playbook betrays itself, and betrays us with a bait-and-switch: it promises honesty but delivers hokum, wants to be mature but can only manage maudlin. Fittingly, it's a disastrously bipolar film, beginning in the depressive and ending in the manic: by the time its overly traditional ending comes, any happiness or romance to be found there seems like the worst kind of delusion.