Good, quality comedy is sometimes hard to sell. Mixing in drama can either make it or break it. Sometimes the jokes will come off as insensitive, unrealistic, or just hokey. Sometimes the drama will lend itself to being melodrama and over the top. Plus, adding in romance either makes it a Valentine's Day date movie or a disrespected joke. So, just going into the synopsis of David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playlist makes it a difficult sell. How do you describe it without it sounding like a studio flick starring Katheirne Heigl and Gerard Butler? At the same time, if you focus on the drama being about a man, recently out of the psych ward, trying to find his place in the world, without it sounding like an awards bait, Sean Penn vehicle?
The trick here is the director. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) has become a master at delivering stories about real people in a real light, while not losing the quirkiness we all experience on a daily basis. The trick is also in the casting. Bradley Cooper steps in to take on his first true leading man role (his attempts in The Words and Limitless really just prepared him for this) where other, "bigger" stars would have probably made the movie seem not as important. Tom Cruise would have made it muddled behind his celebrity. Jennifer Lawrence, a star in her own right, is perfect as the vivacious and troubled female, a role that anyone from Jennifer Aniston to Heigl could have tried, but it would have come across as cheeky rom-com drama. Lawrence excels at keeping things low profile and underwhelming, which in reality sells the performance as true. The supporting players, like in The Fighter, are important here, as well. Robert De Niro hasn't been this good in years.
When it comes to providing a story, a filmmaker has a few decisions to make. Do they settle for semi-quality to allow for "stars" and a good trailer (and hope for a decent box office when the movie is released in the graveyard weekends of January)? Or, do they focus on the magic of story, allowing the actors, big name or not, to really develop the plot, carry the story, and give a rewarding product? That's what separates a bland, run-of-the-mill comedy/drama and a caliber film.
There are faults in Silver Linings Playbook, which mostly has to do with the tone of the storyline. Russell does the best he can to allow us into these people's lives at this snippet of time, though some of the character choices seem a bit much. Despite the flaws, the joy is in getting to know these characters and getting to see this type of story (which we've seen a billion times) told in a new light.
The movie has done pretty well among the critics awards and it'll definitely have some presence at the Oscars. Plus, if Cooper and Lawrence keep it up, they just may well be Hollywood's answer to the struggle to find good, beautiful, and compelling performers...which seems to be somewhat missing these days.