Few disagree with the line from the old Jimmy Buffett song that “If we couldn’t laugh, we’d all go insane.” Yet in movies, humorless characters are funnier. There’s nothing more painful onscreen than somebody who is supposed to be witty and wise delivering a line that all the other characters find a riot.
But in real life, people who are professionals at making others laugh are often, contra Buffett, not quite right in the head.
Consider writer-director David O. Russell and his Best Picture-nominated comedy, Silver Linings Playbook, one of 2012’s most consistently entertaining movies.
It stars Bradley Cooper (the tall guy from The Hangover and the 2011 People Sexiest Man Alive) as an ex-high school history teacher suffering mania, rage attacks, and an autistic’s off-kilter affect. Before his commitment, Pat Jr. came home to his nice house early one day to find his wife in the shower with another man. After he nearly beat the interloper to death, his parents kept him out of jail by agreeing to put him in a mental facility for eight months and then taking him in. They treat him (with good reason) like a strapping toddler prone to tantrums.
Pat Jr. is trying to avoid a second commitment by developing a positive attitude, jogging, and not bottling up his mental illness. Instead, he inflicts it upon everybody around him. Of course, his friends and relatives—such as Pat Sr., an obsessive-compulsive bookie and fanatical Philadelphia Eagles football fan (played by Robert De Niro, looking disconcertingly like my late father)—aren’t terribly sane themselves.
Cooper and De Niro are both nominated for Academy Awards (it’s the great man’s first Oscar nod since Cape Fear 21 years ago). The two mad men are fascinating to watch, but it’s a tribute to Russell’s ability to keep multiple balls in the air (for which he received his first Best Director nomination) that the characters’ unreality isn’t evident until you consider them the next day.
Cooper seems to be channeling George Clooney’s disgusted description of Russell as “insane to the point of stupidity” by playing the protagonist as humorless, charmless, and clueless. But if Pat Jr. is as broadly defective as he acts, how did such a low-IQ individual ever acquire a high-school teaching credential, a wife, and a house?
I guess it helps to look like Bradley Cooper.
De Niro’s role is implausible, too. I had an Italian-American friend whose dad was a prominent bookmaker. Bookies go broke fast unless they are cold-bloodedly rational. But at least with Pat Sr., the nuttier his Eagles-rooting compulsions get, the more De Niro lays on the guile.
The backstory to Silver Linings Playbook is David O. Russell himself, who makes Mel Gibson seem as composed as Jacques Barzun.
Russell got off to a hot start in the 1990s with Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, stories inspired by his hatred of his hot-tempered mother. Mental instability seems to run in the family. The director has announced that Silver Linings is inspired by his 18-year-old son’s struggle with manic depression and OCD. (Is it wise to publicize your teenager’s personal problems to promote your movie?) Judging by the director’s track record of alienating actors, perhaps both his son and his mother inherited their mental problems from him.
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