If you're expecting David O. Russell to deliver a film that realistically depicts the challenges and processes of living with bipolar disorder, you'll need to adjust that expectation toward the manic end of life's spectrum. This romantic comedy uses bipolar disorder as the mean ol' sun in a model universe around which the filmmaker whips his erratic planets, making them crash into each other for your entertainment, and he accomplishes this by keeping them buzzing at a very high pitch. Depression is for Abilify commercials.
There's Patrick (Bradley Cooper), the bipolar substitute teacher who lost everything thanks to an especially violent episode, went to a hospital for eight months and now fervently believes in the power of positive thinking to woo back the wife who filed a restraining order. There's Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the young widow who spins out of sexual control and then back into a sort of order when she takes Patrick on as a rehab project/dance competition partner. There's Patrick's dad (Robert De Niro) and mom (Jacki Weaver), a Philadelphia Eagles superfan-turned-bookie with a superstitious stripe of obsessive-compulsive disorder and the wife who enables him with carefully planned trays of snacks. There's a psychiatrist (Anupam Kher) and fellow hospital pal who keeps breaking out (Chris Tucker), a cop (Dash Mihok) and an unhappily married couple (John Ortiz, Julia Stiles). As a lumpy crew of dysfunction and support, they exist to provide a rickety framework for the damaged-yet-exceptionally-attractive couple to build a sort-of relationship based on the more charming aspects of mental illness: wide-eyed excitement, boundary-free sharing, wacky public scenes, the wearing of garbage bags just, you know, around. And lots of yelling.
And build, they do. When Lawrence and Cooper are together, their chemistry jumps and sparks and their rat-a-tat psycho-banter aims for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell territory. Lawrence is especially forthright and winningly antagonistic, here ("Calm down, Crazy!" she yaps in his face during one of a series of hyper-talky moments, push-pulling him toward her like an expert fisherman). That it doesn't reach those vintage screwball heights isn't so important; there's something to be said for aiming for joy, no matter how cracked. Otherwise you wind up with Sid and Nancy or, worse, Benny and Joon.
The happy ending is coming, thanks to Russell's increasingly forgiving approach to human breakage as his career finds its way in the mainstream of American moviemaking. And you can wait for it as Cooper and Lawrence rehearse their amateur dance moves for a competition they're sure to choke on and everyone preps for a big football game that'll make or break De Niro's financial prospects. And the fact that all this gets tangled together in a final manic episode predicated on point spreads and failure is almost thrillingly odd and perfectly sweet, a Philadelphia Story for people who never skip their meds.