Opening Nov. 21, "Silver Linings Playbook" is the latest teeming organism from writer and director David O. Russell, whose films include "Flirting With Disaster," "Three Kings" and, two years ago, "The Fighter," for which Christian Bale and Melissa Leo won Academy Awards in the supporting performance categories.
"Silver Linings Playbook" was shot partially in working-class neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The results recall what Russell's camera caught in the Lowell, Mass., locales of "The Fighter," in the way the director authenticates local color, bringing the atmosphere and the eccentric details, visual and verbal, to the foreground. In Chicago recently on a press tour, Russell recalls a recent Philadelphia screening of "Silver Linings Playbook," which had just won the coveted audience award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and appears destined for a few Oscar nominations itself.
"I'd never been to a screening where people cheered for the house," he says. Philadelphia Eagles memorabilia; the way Robert De Niro's gambler character, the father of the protagonist, configures his TV remotes just so a few inches from his recliner: Those in the know appreciate such accuracies. As do strangers to this world, interested in hanging out with these characters for a couple of hours.
Bradley Cooper plays schoolteacher Pat Solitano, a character Russell admits is "off-putting to some degree," especially at first. The story gets going when Pat's mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up after an eight-month stay at a state institution. Pat moves back in with his folks, though he wants to get his old life and shaky marriage back on solid ground. He finds an ally of sorts in Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough cookie with secrets to match or exceed Pat's. "Silver Linings Playbook" is a little bit of everything, in terms of tone and subject, but at heart it's a hard-won romance as well as an embrace of the joyous mess of extended family. Especially among Eagles fanatics.
"I wrote this before 'The Fighter,'" Russell says, "and I related to it because it's personal to me." The late Sydney Pollack and producer Harvey Weinstein suggested the book for his adaptation, not long before Pollack's death. "It's about a father and a son. I have a son, who's 18. He's the guy who rings the doorbell in the movie. He's dealt with some of the matters that Bradley's character experiences, so it was familiar to me. And Mr. De Niro has had some experience with that as well, with one of his own children."
After the success of "The Fighter," Russell revised his "Silver Linings Playbook" script in earnest. The De Niro character was more of a raging bull in the earlier drafts; the humanizing touch the role (and the performance) carries in the final form has led to De Niro's best reviews in decades. "This was something he really wanted to do," Russell says. "He'd done all those jobs for hire, and he really wanted to… connect, I guess."
"The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" were shot relatively quickly (30 or so days each), on budgets in the neighborhood of $20 million. "I've been the indulgent, foolish partner" on some previous projects, Russell admits. "Not a lot, but a little." This is better, smarter, he says. With "Silver Linings Playbook," he says, the trick was finding the right comedy in the characters' desperate straits. And in the meaning of family.
"What do we have in life, really?" he asks. "If we're lucky we get to a certain age, and we have each other. We have the food we like. We have our crazy little rituals. And we have each other."