Finding gold in Silver Linings Playbook

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TORONTO—Writer-director David O. Russell has a career interest in subjects relating to mental health, and Silver Linings Playbook, his most recent film, is the culmination of this obsession. In some ways, the film resembles a feature-length retread of some intense and memorable moments from Russell’s previous films: the dinner-party scenes in I Heart Huckabees or Flirting With Disaster, say. It also bears the distinction of being one of the first movies to treat intense sports fandom (the kind that leads to complicated rituals and superstitions) as the neuro-atypical behavior it so often resembles.

Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a man who, having just been released from treatment at a mental hospital, moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver). The problem was that Pat suffered a violent episode after discovering his wife’s affair and was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A condition of his release is that he take his meds and steer clear of his ex-wife.

Naturally, Pat spends every waking hour trying to figure out how to win his ex back—that is, when he’s not clashing with his dad. Pat Sr., a pensioner who has lost his pension, has recently taken up bookmaking, an activity that feeds his intense Philadelphia Eagles fandom, which may be a manifestation of an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The tension between father and son is ramped up when Pat Jr. meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a depressive goth widow.

Russell—who, during a media day for Silver Linings Playbook at the Toronto International Film Festival, used the term Aspergersy to describe Cooper’s performance—seemed at ease with the fact that his film walks the razor’s edge of tragicomedy. The thing about characters, he said, is that diagnosed illness or not, “no two are alike; they’re all like fingerprints.”

“We knew that [Pat Jr.] was somebody who had a mood issue that would…explode under stress and it would approach psychosis,” he continued. “Bradley’s performance was a process for us. He comes on the set and he’s playing some traits that were a little bit more Aspergersy because sometimes that goes together with bipolarity…you always say the socially direct but awkward thing.”

Cooper, who is known for his comedic performances in films like Wedding Crashers and the Hangover franchise and was recently named People magazine’s sexiest man, was hard to pin down about his technique. “I hadn’t really thought about how I wanted to play it,” he said. “It was about exploring it every day with David and Jennifer and the other actors. It was a discovery every day rather than a destination point.”

The script, which Russell adapted from a novel by Matthew Quick, gets something right: the film won the audience-favourite award at TIFF and is already generating Oscar buzz before its wide release on Wednesday (November 21).

For the cynical, this makes sense; Hollywood has a history of rewarding actors who play mentally challenged characters. And the film, particularly with Cooper and Lawrence’s performances, bears the Russell imprimatur: it’s a feel-good holiday movie that tackles big themes and bigger questions.

“There’s a whole layer of the movie that I was focused on, which was the way these people are like everybody else and like our world, which has been bipolar,” Russell said, citing the U.S. economy—which “was high and then crashed”—as an example.

“The fact that these guys are trying to adopt a positive attitude was really important to me,” he added. “As Jack Nicholson always says, ‘Try to incline yourself upwards as much as possible,’ because it’s too easy in this world to incline yourself downwards. These guys have every reason to incline themselves downwards, but they’re trying to rebuild the economy of their lives. And that’s why these characters aren’t so fringy to me: they become the most sane people in the room.”


Watch the trailer for Silver Linings Playbook.

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