An off-kilter but satisfying film that depicts family dysfunction, romance and mental illness with humor, pathos and wit, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is his most personal movie to date. I met Russell at the New York premiere of I Heart Huckabees a few years ago and the candid and engaging director revealed that 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, and should rack up at least as many nominations as his last film, 2011's The Fighter, which received seven nods including supporting statuettes for Melissa Leo and Christian Bale.
In SLP, 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 and wrangles him into partnering with her in a dance contest. They both lack social graces and a conversational filter, which gradually draws the characters together.
The rest of the ensemble includes Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) as his protective parents and obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fans. De Niro’s character -- his best part in years-- also has gambling and OCD issues; in one scene tears spring unexpectedly from his eyes, a performance that is sure to get him a supporting actor nod.
In a small but crucial role, Chris Tucker 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.
Preceding the film’s release, the director and stars, Weaver, De Niro -- more talkative than we’ve ever seen him -- Cooper and Tucker, appeared at a press conference.at the Regency Hotel in midtown. Lawrence had attended a special screening the night before but was already back on The Hunger Games set and was not there.
Russell explained that the genesis of the film occurred about five years ago when director Sydney Pollack showed him the novel, which he and partner Anthony Minghella (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 -- who has also made Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings -- 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 that 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 revealed that 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.”
Weaver said her biggest challenge “was not being overawed by working with Robert, because for my generation he was the master,” she said. “It was important to get the familiarity so that’s why being overawed wasn’t being helpful, but yeah I think we felt like a family at the end and I have a grown son around about the same age as Brad so it wasn’t hard conjuring up the feelings I have for him for Brad.”
When asked what he thought defined a classic romantic comedy, Russell noted he didn’t consider Silver Linings to be a romantic comedy. “Is The Fighter a fight film? Not really. To me it’s a film about these specific people. If you have an invested emotional drama that’s very specific to a group of people that the romance happens to occur in that’s the secret right there, because then the whole world will feel original and emotional and the romance will surprise you as it surprises the characters.”
“They’re supposed to be staying away from each other. They’re both pariahs. You’ve heard him talk about her through the whole movie, ‘Stay away from her, stay away from her and all of a sudden she’s in the house. This pariah is in the house and they’ve been dancing together the whole movie, which is like a loaded gun, and when it’s in an original landscape that has real people and integrity that’s different. You’re not starting out announcing what it is. You’re saying, ‘Look at this world.’”
De Niro, who’s played his share of unhinged characters (Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Raging Bull), was asked if he drew on those roles in this film. “You always use part of yourself that’s applicable to the situation and circumstances. I also have a personal understanding about the situation that’s different but you could apply all those things. You use whatever works.”
When queried about casting Lawrence, Russell explained that she “was a late arrival to audition. We had our choice, fortunately because it’s a very rich role, from a lot of great actresses. They all wanted the part. She was an underdog. We thought perhaps she was too young, perhaps too inexperienced. We didn’t know how much depth she had, and the fact is she came in at the last moment and stole the role. She possesses many qualities of the character. She possesses a great maturity, a great confidence but also a great vulnerability.
When you have somebody there who is just in the moment and real and has a lot of charisma and emotion coming off of them, it just helps the whole process” and then her career “took “off like a rocket ship.”
At the beginning she asked Cooper what it was like to have people photograph him everywhere he went, but by the end of shooting Silver Linings, the director said Hunger Games came out and the actress knew the answer.
The nifty dance scenes between the two are some of the best moments in the film. Cooper met Lawrence in the dance studio. “It’s a hell of a way to meet somebody. The next thing you know we’re sweating and she has her hands under my armpits and it’s very embarrassing, and she was wonderful.” He said Lawrence did the “lion’s share” of the dancing.
The camera spends a lot more time lingering over Lawrence’s fit body in her sports bra than on Cooper, who looks a little awkward and disheveled. “The dance came to life very much the same way that the rest of the movie came to life,” Cooper said. “David would come often to rehearsals, look at something, tweak it, come up with something else and it sort of morphed.”
The movie leads to the dance competition, where their routine (choreographed by two-time Emmy nominee Mandy Moore) is both funny and poignant.
For Cooper, “it reflects the relationship in many ways. It has almost this bi-polar aspect to it. I like to dance so it was fun to do them, but I feel bad because Bob and Chris had to sit and watch us dance for three days for 16 hours.
And Cooper added wryly, “Bob was like a glorified extra.”