Silver Linings Playbook is sort of a lateral pass for director David O. Russell. Much like his last movie The Fighter, Playbook is a blue-collar romantic dramedy with sport movie trimmings and a fixation on the inexhaustible number of ways family members can drive you straight up the wall.
Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano Jr., a man fresh from his eight-month stint in a mental institution and still constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Though his tenure at the cuckoo’s nest was the result of a plea bargain (he beat a man within an inch of his life after catching his wife with him in the shower), Pat’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder is very real, though it seems less triggered by chemical imbalances in his neurological system and more triggered by the sound of Stevie Wonder singing “My Cherie Amour.”
Pat is convinced that if he follows a set of self-improvement guidelines, he will win back his estranged wife’s love, despite the restraining order she has taken out against him and his family and friends’ insistence that she will never take him back. His attempts to contact her through first-degree connections result in police calls, so he decides to take up the offer of tertiary acquaintance, the similarly troubled Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence, likely cruising toward another Oscar nomination with this performance).
Meanwhile, Pat’s family try to keep him from disrupting the delicate equilibrium his father (Robert De Niro) maintains. They’re a Philadelphia Eagles house, and Pat’s dad has a clear but unacknowledged obsessive compulsive approach to his fandom. Pat’s presence is required, but Tiffany seems to be requiring more and more of Pat’s time.
Even more than The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook is a crowd-pleaser first and foremost, with O. Russell thrusting the story’s emotionally raw nerve endings as far in the foreground as they’ll go, to the point of hysteria sometimes. It’s not surprising such wanton passionate emoting would have been rewarded with the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, an award that portends solid Oscar chances next year.
Matthew Quick, author of the book that became O. Russell’s movie, was in town last month to promote the film at the Twin Cities Film Festival (where it won another in what will likely be a long string of awards). Here are a few moments from our conversation together.
Eric Henderson: Is love the biggest insanity of all?
Matthew Quick: Well put. I think that’s true. When you fall in love, there are a lot of similarities with going insane. Your personality changes, your judgments aren’t always sound. It could be in some ways a beautiful thing, but it could also be a negative thing. We’ve all had friends who have fallen in love with the wrong person. That could be really dangerous.
I’ve got friends who have made horror movies in Philly, and one of them said about my work: “Q writes f***ed up fairy tales.” In some ways, they are these hopeful stories, but it’s not about Prince Charming and Cinderella. They’re about these damaged, real characters that aren’t necessarily gorgeous to look at. They’re flawed.
I think David did a really great job of taking People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” and making him look as normal as possible. He talks about how most leading men have these perfect symmetrical faces, but Bradley Cooper’s face, if you look at it, isn’t perfectly symmetrical. And they emphasized some of the scars on his face.
I think a lot of people when they first start reading the novel, especially if they don’t have much experience with the mental health community, will say “I really couldn’t relate to Pat at first. He seemed so strange, so inaccessible.” But then they’ll get to the end of the novel and they’ll say, “He was the sanest character!” I think part of that is that you fall in love with Pat. You understand who he is as a person. As a writer, I was always taught to promote understanding. I think that’s a form of love, too. Those who know our darkest secrets — our family members, our lovers — love us in spite of our warts, even though they see them the most. That’s irrational. That’s the human condition.
Henderson: It’s sort of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest syndrome, where Jack Nicholson’s character was the only one there against his will but he’s the sanest character. Everyone else is just sane enough to know that they’re putting themselves in that position.
Quick: A lot of people have asked me about [Cuckoo’s Nest author] Ken Kesey and whether he was an inspiration to my novel, and of course I’ve read and taught the novel. I think these are just universal themes. We’re always taught, especially in America, that the most important thing is to be the same. I grew up in a neighborhood where it was important to be the same, a blue collar neighborhood. And I always looked the part, acted the part, but inside I was very different. I feel that my writing career in many ways (and I don’t say this lightly) was a coming out experience.
The crazy thing is that the people I was most afraid to show that side of myself, our relationship has improved. My father first told me when I quit a 10-year position, sold my house and lived with my in-laws, he called me an idiot. He’s a banker. That was the most financially irresponsible thing for me to do in his opinion. Ironically, my father saw the film in Philadelphia and he was so proud. There was 800 people in the room, I walked the red carpet with David, Mayor (Michael) Nutter introduced the film. My father was beaming, and afterwards he called me and said, “That was the best movie I ever saw.” This is a guy that’s not open with his emotions and now he’s telling me he’s proud of me.
It’s really counterintuitive. When I was in my 20s, I thought if I tell my dad how I really feel, he’s going to disown me and hate me. That’s the insanity of love. We tell people what we want, but it might not necessarily be what we really want.
Henderson: I’d say in the last few generations, dysfunction has become more the norm in terms of how romantic stories are told. How did previous generations do it?
Quick: I was really close to my grandfather. He came back from WWII. After WWII, we had all these Bogart films and femmes fatale and a real mistrust of women. I think it was you had had kids, you had a job, no one asked questions. You didn’t talk about your emotions or feelings, they just shut off. They got through a real tough period, but the repercussions of that were in the second generation. My father went to school in the ’60s and had all these feelings and perhaps wanted to take different paths, but there was that lingering sense of “you have to do this,” and that’s why I think he became a banker. Two generations later, and I feel I finally have the freedom to make that choice. I don’t have children, and that’s another conscious choice that would’ve been un-thought of in my father’s generation.
When you look at the generations in my family, I view that as a progression. It took a long time to shed the baggage of WWII and the ’50s. I like to think that we’re becoming more open-minded and tolerant as a society. I think art is a great vehicle for that. A big taboo now, and especially when I was growing up, is mental health issues. People will come up to me all the time and tell me all the things their family is struggling with in terms of mental health, and feel a great sense of relief that they can talk about that stuff openly, whereas my father could never talk about it growing up and definitely not my grandfather. My great-grandmother died in an institution. Nobody said a word about it. It was a big secret. It wasn’t until my grandmother was in her late 80s that she would even talk to me about her mother. Putting all that dysfunction on the screen is a way to say we can finally talk about it.
Henderson: Talk a little bit about how you felt about David O. Russell’s approach to the material. He seems to me a really appropriate match.
Quick: People on the Internet have accused me of writing this on spec for David, which is a total lie.
Henderson: It does seem in his wheelhouse, though.
Quick: Yeah, that’s what everyone says. I’ve seen David’s films. I’m a big film fan. People have accused me of writing with the screen in mind. When I was writing the book, you ask who would star? Who would direct? I always thought David would be perfect for this. Now people say, of course I’d say that, but at the time when I was writing in obscurity, I thought David O. Russell would be perfect for it. And when I eventually told him that, he accused me of lying. When I heard that he was attached, it was easy to let go of the project as a writer, because I was fascinated to see what he’d do with the characters. I consider it a great education in the last four years seeing the screenplay develop, going on the set, talking with David and then finally seeing the film. I’m thrilled with the movie, and I love it, but it was very stressful to watch it the first time. There were conflicting emotions. But eventually I just let go and enjoyed the movie, and that’s when I knew we had something pretty special.