“Silver Linings Playbook,” directed by David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “Spanking the Monkey,” “Three Kings”) is an off-kilter but satisfying film that depicts family dysfunction, romance and mental illness with humor, pathos and wit. It is also the director’s most personal movie to date.
I met Russell at the New York premiere of “I Heart Huckabees” a few years back and the candid and engaging director told me his son had mental disability issues. The other night at a BAFTA screening he told the audience his father was bipolar. It was these themes the director said that drew him to Matthew Quick’s book from which he adapted the film.
“Silver Linings Playbook” won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a bellwether of future Oscar glory – think “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire – and should rack up at least as many nominations as his last film, “The Fighter,” (2011) which received seven nods, including supporting statuettes for Melissa Leo and Christian Bale.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a bipolar Philadelphia high school teacher who suffers a meltdown after his wife cheats on him. The movie begins with Pat’s release from an eight-month stay in a mental institution. Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany) plays an unstable, sex-crazed widow who pursues him and wrangles him into competing with her in a dance contest. They both have a lack of social graces and conversational filter, which gradually draw the characters together.
The rest of the ensemble includes Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom”) as protective parents and obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fans. De Niro, whose character also has gambling and OCD issues, has his best part in years; in one scene tears spring unexpectedly from De Niro’s eyes, a performance that is sure to get him a supporting actor nod. Chris Tucker, in a small but crucial role, is a revelation as Pat’s mental inmate buddy, showing a much different side to him than in his well-known “Rush Hour” movies; he energizes the film whenever he appears and also gives the couple some great dance tips.
Earlier in the week at the Regency Hotel in midtown, the director and the film’s stars, Weaver, De Niro – who was more talkative than we’ve ever seen him – Cooper and Chris Tucker, appeared at a press conference. (Lawrence, who was not there, had attended a special screening the night but was already back on “The Hunger Games” set.)
Some highlights from the press conference:
Russell said the genesis of the film occurred about five years ago when Sydney Pollack showed him the novel, which he and his partner Anthony Minghella (they both died tragically in 2008) owned with Harvey Weinstein. “I would say if it were not for my son, who has had some of these struggles with bi-polarity and other matters, the book would not have grabbed me.” (Russell’s son, Matthew, who is in the film, plays a pesky next-door neighbor and has some hilarious scenes with De Niro.)
“It’s my first adaptation and the characters were fantastic, very complicated characters, each one of them very powerful” and they were “grappling with things in a very particular neighborhood way.” But then Russell didn’t “get to make it as expected. I began work on ‘The Fighter,’ which turned out to really focus my energy on this kind of a world, which I’ve really come to appreciate as a filmmaker.” When he came back to the movie, he “rewrote it again for the people who are up here,” he said, gesturing at the actors sitting next to him.
As to how the actors created such authentic feel of family and neighborhood, Cooper said he had some “trepidation early on with the movie” but that “a huge, soothing aspect for me was that I was going to play his son (gesturing to De Niro), and we had done a movie together prior (“Limitless”), and he really did, truth be told, champion me to get the role, and I confided to him early on that I didn’t know if I could do it.” He said De Niro told him he’d be “fine.” “The Hangover” actor added, “I knew I could say the word ‘Dad’ and look at him and that that would come from a real place and so that was built in. Jacki was like a miracle. She’s the same height as my mother. She was somehow able to command her spirit and it all just sort of clicked right away, instantaneous. The house was also very much a part of that magic that occurred. It just felt like when you saw those two in that house that they belonged there. It also helped that we had somebody in the kitchen, so this kitchen smelled like” home made food was being made. “There’s nothing like walking into one those houses and smelling Italian food being cooked. It just sets the tone.” They also spoke to the neighbors and became part of the neighborhood. “It just very much felt like a ritualistic experience that was heavily embedded in that block.”