Getting To The Heart Of David O. Russell’s ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

It’s rare in today’s cinematic landscape to find a film that’s not only emotionally engaging and relevant but also teaches you something about yourself and allows you to understand those around you more clearly. And when it comes to films dealing with mental illness, there always seems to be a slant towards the extreme—either we’re viewing those dealing a condition through a stigmatized lens or we’re looking at someone totally consumed by it. So what feels entirely unique is a film that shows what actual life is like—what it is actually like to deal with something profoundly troubling inside yourself, as well as to force yourself to get through the day and live your life in a way that doesn’t allow you to fall prey to it. With his latest film, Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell doesn’t simply make a romantic comedy about troubled adults; he gives us one very specific look into a community of people like yourself and the people that you love, just trying to find a way to make it all work.

Based on the novel of the same title by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook was given to Russell by Sydney Pollack who owned the rights with his partner Anthony Minghella and Harvey Weinstein. “Were it not from my son who had some of these struggles with bipolarity and other matters, the book would not have grabbed me,” said Russell at a press conference with the cast on Monday. “The characters were fantastic, all very complicated characters—very powerful women and very powerful men grappling with things in a very particular neighborhood way.” Silver Linings tells the story of Pat Solitano (played by Bradley Cooper), a former high school history teacher who returns to his Philadelphia community after being released from a court-ordered stint in a mental hospital. Now living with his parents, Pat Sr. and Dolores (played by Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver), Pat attempts to reconcile with his new life and desperately gain back the affections of his estranged ex-wife, Nikki.

Amidst his recovery, Pat meets Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with troubles of her own. The two tortured souls connect instantly but clash on impact, immediately bonding over their unspoken recognition that they’re different from those around them but their unfiltered personalities find them at odds with one another. After some mild stalking, the two arrange to become friends with benefits—those benefits being Tiffany’s help sneaking Pat’s letters to Nikki in exchange for Pat partnering her in a dance competition she has been eagerly preparing for. 

The characters in Silver Linings—whether it’s Pat’s abrasive deadpan delivery of “saying more inappropriate things than appropriate things,” or the way Tiffany’s entire attitude can turn on a dime in a way that’s as hilarious as it can be heartbreaking—all have their own idiosyncratic tendencies that are embodied by the brilliant performances of the actors who play them. Bradley Cooper delivers the performance of his career, showing an absolute dedication to his work and a selflessness that makes you wonder why we haven’t seen this side of him sooner. Upon watching Wedding Crashers, Russell found it intriguing that Cooper seemed a much angrier person. “When I got to know him he was only more interesting because that guy was 30 pounds heavier and was angrier at that time,” Russell said. “So that was interesting to hear when Bradley told me about himself because that mirrored the journey of Pat. And as Pat is reintroducing himself to his community, I feel so is Bradley when we meet him in the picture as an actor. I don’t think people have seen that face of him in cinema.” 

Russell’s desire was to capture the essence of these very specific communities, and Cooper, being from Philadelphia himself, brought an authenticity and knowledge of that very ritualistic, family-oriented world. “I confided in him early on that I didn’t know if I could do it,” said Cooper of his trepidation about taking on the role next to De Niro. "But he said, ‘You’re from Philly, you’ll be fine.’ And I knew I could say the word ‘dad’ and look at him and that would come from a real place. So that was built in.” De Niro himself got to know Russell over a period of years, allowing them, according to Russell, to “have a personal dialogue about members of our family that had various challenges they’d faced.” The simpatico between De Niro and the entire cast resulted in one of the most dynamic and energetic performances I’ve seen from De Niro in years, utilizing his restrained intensity that’s filled with so much love and so much fear. 

Jennifer Lawrence on the other hand, was not at all who Russell expected to cast. “We thought she was perhaps too young and too inexperienced, we didn’t know how much depth she had,” said Russell, who admitted that at the very last minute she came in and stole the show. It’s hard now to imagine the film without her; she brings such life and charisma to the film, with a presence that feels at once very powerful yet gentle enough to understand that her fragility. “She possesses many qualities of the character,” Russell continued. “She possesses a great maturity emotionally and a great confidence but also a great vulnerability.” Rounding out the cast is Chris Tucker (someone we haven’t seen enough of since Rush Hour) as Danny, Pat’s friend from the mental hospital, who serves up the legal language of the film. "My role was a small role, but it had so much depth to the character," said Tucker. “It was so much fun, and I think this is one of the most important roles I’ve ever done."

Filmed in just a little over a month, De Niro explained that “there was a kind of chaotic shooting where the camera was always moving around, this and that. It gave it a life that’s very important.” “It’s almost like theater,” Cooper said. “That house almost felt like we were doing theater in it. That scene where Tiffany comes in and does the whole parlay scene—almost the whole cast was there and it just had this immediate vibration, which is intoxicating for an actor. And all David’s characters in all of his movies are very dynamic, they have to deal with emotions that we can all relate to but are a little bit heightened.” 

Speaking to Pat’s socially jarring nature, Russell said, “I love how uncomfortable people are at the beginning of the movie. People say, ‘Oh Bradley Cooper, The Hangover. I’m uncomfortable. He’s a very scary character.  What’s he going to do next?’” But in watching the film, what proved so fascinating to me was how relatable everything and everyone feels. It hits on a guttural level that allows you to identify with the characters even at their worst, recognizing their faults and flaws as your own. Each dealing with their own anxieties and disorders, these characters are not sketches of a person scrapped together or extreme examples meant to teach a lesson. Rather, they are all simply people trying to deal with something beyond their grasp in the best way they can. It feels as if you are peering through a window on your neighbor, slightly frightened and enticed by the situation at hand, but knowing that when you return home, someone could be thinking the same thing watching you. And that’s where the genius of the writing comes into play. Russell’s dialogue never feels forced or contrived, and there’s immediacy with each word. “That is, as Frank Sinatra once said, the whole trick of the record to me,” Russell said. “You feel like you’re spying on people. And everybody has to trick themselves, when I’m writing I have to trick myself as a writer, you have trick yourself into being in a moment and that’s one of my favorite things about the film.”

Adding to the dimensionality of the characters is the fact that there are always consequences for their actions; no one is allowed to come away unscathed. The film also does a beautiful job of subtly portraying the point in illness, treatment, and recovery when one has the clarity and consciousness to recognize his or her behavior and faults but still does not have the power to control them and the shame, guilt, and self-hatred that comes along with it. “My goal as a filmmaker is really to grab people by the throat with a sustained intensity of emotion,” said Russell. That sentiment is never articulated in a sentimental way. “I think it’s a great thing when characters have a challenge,” Russell said. “Whether it’s someone who is bipolar or a drug addict; these people are challenging but make everybody around them rise or fall. It’s about second chances.”