"Silver Linings Playbook" is one of those rare films that embraces all of life's messy contradictions. It's romantic, but not schmaltzy. It's about sports fans -- the really obsessive ones -- but it's also for non-sports fans who've never watched a football game (or would never want to). It's about mental illness, but without turning anyone living with or recovering from one into a caricature, contrasting bipolarity with so-called normal obsessive emotional states, without compromising what any of them really are. Writer/director David O. Russell achieves a tricky balancing act, thanks to the performances of his cast (Bradley Cooper as a bipolar man with anger management issues fresh out of a mental institution, Jennifer Lawrence as a recovering sex addict, and Robert De Niro as an obsessive-compulsive and superstitious gambler, also with anger management issues). All were in New York this week to promote the film at a screening on Sunday and a press conference and premiere on Monday, and shared some of the trade secrets behind the movie's own playbook.
When Sidney Pollack gave Russell Matthew Quick's novel from which the film is adapted some five years ago, the writer/director especially related to the material because of the struggles of his eighteen-year-old son Matthew, who is bipolar. "If it weren't for my son, I never would have made this movie," Russell said. "My son has taught me so many things. I've learned that some people can't afford a negative attitude. It's a luxury to have a sort of cynical or a negative attitude."
Russell wasn't the only one on set who had a family connection to the issues raised by Cooper's character. De Niro, too, has "a personal understanding about the situation," the actor said. "It's different, but you can still apply those things [to the work]. You use whatever works, as long as you don't hurt anybody or yourself."
Russell said that he's talked to De Niro over the years about having "members of our family who had various challenges" with mental health, and the two realized it provided them "an emotional gateway to the material." "It makes it very specific and personal to you," Russell said, "and you care about it and understand it, because this is personal for both of us."
Matthew previously performed in a production of "Aladdin" at Devereux Glenholme, a therapeutic boarding school in Connecticut which provides an education for students diagnosed with Asperger's, ADHD, PDD, OCD, Tourette's, depression, anxiety, and learning disabilities. It's a school his father fundraises for by auctioning off roles in his movies -- a girl who kissed Christian Bale at the opening of "The Fighter," and the judges in the "Silver Linings" dance competition won their parts this way.
As he did in "The Fighter," Matthew makes a brief appearance in his father's film, this time as a nosy neighborhood kid who keeps ringing the doorbell of Pat's house, asking him to participate in an on-camera school report he's doing on mental illness, only to be chased off the property by De Niro.
"My son said it was like waking up in 'Raging Bull' suddenly, and he started laughing," Russell said. "He was laughing nervously, and I said, 'You can't do that. You've got to be in the scene.' And Bob, being the master that he is, said, 'That's okay. I can make that work. I can play with that.' And it works, because it plays very real, like a kid who is scared of a grown man, and the man is yelling at him and he's laughing and it's perfect."