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.
Thus, when Russell made Three Kings with Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, his verbal abuse of crew members got so out of hand that Clooney felt compelled to step in. That legendary physical altercation helped Clooney’s career (crews admire leading men who lead) and damaged Russell’s. He didn’t direct another movie until I Heart Huckabees a half-decade later, which became notorious for a viral video of him screaming at Lily Tomlin.
He then tried to make Nailed, in which Jessica Biel becomes promiscuous after getting a nail lodged in her head, but that collapsed in chaos. In Silver Linings, young Jennifer Lawrence embodies Russell’s recurrent fixations upon brain damage and hot promiscuous babes with unexpected dignity, perhaps because she apprenticed in Jodie Foster’s Mel Gibson-goes-nuts movie The Beaver.
In contrast to Clooney, however, Wahlberg stood by Russell (much as Foster has supported Gibson, even bringing Mad Mel as her date to the Golden Globes for her Lifetime Achievement Award). Wahlberg, who as a teen had horribly beaten two Vietnamese men in racist assaults, apparently figured that if a lower-class thug such as himself could reform, a volatile Amherst auteur such as Russell deserved a third chance.
So Wahlberg hired Russell to direct his labor of love, 2010’s The Fighter. That fine family drama, in which Wahlberg underplayed a mild-mannered Irish-American boxer whose career is being sapped by his delusional brother and grandiose mother, won Christian Bale and Melissa Leo Best Supporting Oscars.
Silver Linings Playbook is basically the same Eastern Seaboard Catholic family movie as The Fighter, only with key points flipped. The tall, skinny, crazy guy is no longer the scene-stealing supporting character; he’s now the central figure. (At 4:17 of this video is Cooper’s Celebrity Tirades impression of Bale notoriously losing control on the set.) And unlike previous Russell films about how your family drives you nuts, Silver Linings is about the maniac’s family conspiring to help him regain his sanity.
In its therapeutic bent—the movie debates whether pharmaceuticals or dance therapy are more healing—Silver Linings lacks what could have been a memorably chilling scene. I would have loved to watch De Niro drop his upbeat mask and tell Cooper that while he’s happy his son avoided prison for attempted murder by pretending that he wants counseling, he’s actually proud that his son had reacted to the intruder like a real man.
Now that would have been a great scene. But Russell isn’t crazy enough to derail his comeback from Crazytown by implying to Hollywood that maybe he isn’t sorry after all.
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