David O. Russell's Very Personal 'Silver Linings Playbook' Finds Comedy in Mental Illness

Bradley Cooper David O. Russell AFI - P 2012
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Bradley Cooper David O. Russell AFI - P 2012

Starring Bradley Cooper as a bipolar man just out of the hospital, the film is a story close to the hearts of the Oscar-nominated director and book author Matthew Quick.

An old north star for authors and journalists is to write what you know, and it's a good maxim for film directors to follow, as well -- especially when wading into stormy waters of peril-fraught subjects such as mental illness.

The Silver Linings Playbook plows into those issues head-on, balancing its plot on imbalance in a cast of characters composed of the bipolar, depressed and obsessive compulsive. It is a work of fiction, but represents a reality to the creative team behind the film.

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"It’s very personal to me. My son, I’ve been through this with my son and his friend, and that’s why I did the movie," director David O. Russell told The Hollywood Reporter at the film's New York premiere on Monday night, nodding his head back at his teenage son, who takes in the after-party scene from a few feet away. "So when it’s personal, you know that you’re coming from the right place. You’re not coming from a reckless place. You’re coming from a very careful place. I’m 18 years deep with this kid, so I’m very invested in him and his friends."

In fact, he even gave his son a small part in the movie.

In the movie, based on the Matthew Quick-penned novel of the same name, Bradley Cooper plays a bipolar former teacher named Pat returning after eight months in a mental hospital -- the result of a plea bargain for the violent meltdown he suffered when finding his wife in the shower with another man. As he returns home to Philadelphia, to live with parents Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, he struggles to adjust to the real world, launching into frequent, frantic occasional outbursts (like cursing Ernest Hemingway and throwing books out a window) -- when he's not saying frank and socially inappropriate things. He is ultimately a sweet man, misguidedly obsessed with repairing his marriage, and his uneasy fit in a society that prizes normalcy -- always a subjective concept -- is mined for plenty of comedy.

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To Quick the laughter comes from a place of sympathy.

"You’re never laughing at somebody that has a mental health illness, you’re laughing at the absurdity of what’s going on, for all the characters involved," he said Monday, pointing to his own history of depression -- he wrote the book while living with his parents, having quit his job as a teacher. "As someone who has worked in the mental health community, I know that laughter is very important. And the people I’ve worked with, if they could laugh at the absurdity -- again, never at the people -- they usually had a much better success rate of suffering from mental illness."

Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Tiffany, a depressed widow that pursues him both for love and as a dance competition partner, toe the fraught line of finding the humor in manic, unstable behavior; their outbursts, quick-twitch responses and wild swings (especially in Cooper's case) are designs to elicit laughs, without being cartoonish caricatures.

"You just play it real, and whatever comes of that. That’s all we try to do, actually," Cooper told THR. "Because in life, things are funny when they’re very tragic. You make connections to your life. You use your imagination, but you always try to make things real for yourself."

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The film's emphasis on football and Philly -- De Niro is a bookie, with an obsessive devotion to the home team -- also helped.

"I had the advantage of coming from Philly and growing up in a household similar," he cracked. "I’m Italian-Irish, and I love the Eagles, so I had a leg up."

Russell also had a great hand in conveying what is mostly an internal, mental struggle of his characters -- the book delves deep into Pat's mind as he regains his memory and tries to make sense of the world -- in easily graspable visuals.

"They’re all very expressive and verbal. I also was very close to Bradley’s face in the beginning of the movie," the director said. "I also think you feel their energy in the flow of the rhythm of the dialogue, which is very important to me. So having a steadycam move with them and their energy, I try to grab people by the throat emotionally and hold them the whole time. That’s very important to me, to sustain that intensity. That’s how you feel the people; it’s a sweaty and intimate thing for me."

And yet despite the sweat, there are no traditional great cinematic victories to be had in the film for any of the characters; it is a small story that focuses in on one neighborhood, and the struggle to just keep a clear head on a day-to-day basis -- to find a silver lining in life's difficulties. That is not a new concept for a movie, as damaged, seemingly self-destructive characters are some of cinema's most celebrated. Just this month, Denzel Washington has earned great praise for playing an alcoholic pilot. It is, however, the affliction of diagnosed mental health problems that makes Silver Linings a new, risky sort of story to tell.

"I think we don’t talk about these things," Quick said, of mental illnesses. "Of course, nobody wants to be an alcoholic, but we have AA. And we have programs for that. We often talk about the drinking that Hemingway did, we celebrate it as a beautiful thing, but we don’t like to talk about the fact that Hemingway shot himself in the head. And I think we kind of glorify that a little bit, for good bad or indifferent. And I think there’s still a lot of taboo out there."

And breaking that stigma is, for Quick, what writing this book was about in the first place.

"I think when people are leaving this film and coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, my son has bipolar disorder, what I’m seeing up there reflects our experience, and I can go home and have a more positive outlook or re-frame it or it gave me a little bit of hope or we can laugh for two hours,’ I think we’re doing our job," he said with a smile.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin