ASPEN - The Pat Solatanos, both Pat Sr. and Pat Jr., are the sort of people who can't keep their disorders below the radar. Pat Jr., the central character in "Silver Linings Playbook," has anger issues severe enough to keep the police in their Philadelphia neighborhood on constant alert. His dad's mixed bag of bipolarity, obsessions and superstitions have cost him his job and his friends and threaten his bank account.
The Solatanos aren't exactly unique in their neighborhood. The young widow around the corner, Tiffany, has lost her job, moved in with her parents and confesses to an extreme bout of sluttiness since the death of her husband. She explains that she was fired for "having sex with everyone in the office." "Everybody?" Pat Jr. asks. "I was very depressed after Tommy died. It was a lot of people." ("A lot" turns out to be 11, with all genders represented.)
The way these traits sit on the surface, impossible to be ignored, mirrors where "Silver Linings Playbook" director David O. Russell is now in his life and his filmmaking career. Russell has always focused on teasing out the comedy from families in crisis, from his debut, "Spanking the Monkey," about an incestuous mother-son relationship, to "I (Heart) Huckabees," centered around a young man so troubled that he seeks the help of a team of "existential detectives." But beginning with 2010's "The Fighter," which earned multiple Academy Awards and was nominated for best picture, Russell switched gears, intent on giving his films a more authentic feel.
"The cinema I'm most interested in, since doing 'The Fighter,' is of authentic specificity," Russell said from New York City's Greenwich Hotel (which was developed by Robert De Niro, who plays Pat Sr. in "Silver Linings Playbook"). "If you're going to find comedy, it's in authentic people and neighborhoods. 'The Fighter' - I know those people."
In probably an even deeper way, Russell knows the characters of "Silver Linings Playbook." Russell has an 18-year-old son who struggles severely with bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
"The single greatest challenge of my life. And it's grown my heart three times in size," he said of his son's condition.
Russell chose to make "Silver Linings Playbook," which he adapted from the Matthew Quick novel, as a way to help his son. The younger Russell has a small role in the film, which gave him the chance not only to work with De Niro as well as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (who play Pat Jr. and Tiffany) but to see the actors portraying people who were emotionally challenged in a way that would look familiar to him.
"Everybody said, 'How are you going to get the tone right?' Well, I know what it's like to have your son say, 'I don't know if I want to live anymore,'" Russell said. "I was looking for a story that would make my son feel like part of the world. It was a great privilege for him to be there and be a part of this world. These are real people."
For Russell, what made the characters so real is that their dysfunctions were impossible to bury. The story of "Silver Linings Playbook" includes bookmaking, self-delusion, romances old and new, oddball jogging escapades, pills and police, father-son dynamics and a dance competition. Keeping these strands together, and making the mix of comedy and pain mesh, is the theme of characters becoming fully exposed in their flaws.
"It's people who are struggling, struggling in a way that is too messy to be hidden. You can see what they're struggling with and how uncomfortable it is. It's not in some shamed corner," Russell said. "These people are dealing with it and dealing with it in a way that can be useful. It can lead to true resolutions. My son has had to learn that. I've had to learn that."
While his films - even "Three Kings," the acclaimed 1999 film set around the first Gulf War - have consistently had a comedic center, Russell says he has always strived to make his characters feel genuine. He got sidetracked in that effort with "I (Heart) Huckabees," which spun off the tracks into the absurd.
"I think I lost my way with 'Huckabees.' It was during my wilderness years," he said.
"Silver Linings Playbook" has an edge of absurdity; Pat. Jr. walking into his parents' bedroom at 4 a.m. to complain about the bleakness of Ernest Hemingway jumps to mind. But Russell believes he has struck a balance between the absurd and the real.
"The true north is the emotional gravity, the authenticity," he said. "Robert De Niro's character - that's a broad range of emotions, from caution to concern to rage to exhortation to tears. But if you know them firsthand, it helps. Each character has to be emotionally real."
Russell's touch with his characters is being validated. "Silver Linings Playbook" is among the leading contenders in the current awards season, with Golden Globe nominations for best picture, best screenplay, best actor and best actress. Among those satisfied is Russell himself, who calls the characters in this film his favorites.
"They're extreme. But in their extremity they make people cut the crap," he said. "It's not fooling people, not being evasive, but being present with their problems. It gives them an opportunity to cut the nonsense, not be judgmental.
"That's the same with anyone's struggles. Let's face it - being human can be uncomfortable."
Like "Little Miss Sunshine," another film of family dysfunction, "Silver Linings Playbook" ends with a dance competition, one that is quasi-triumphant as it celebrates not total victory but realistic expectations and family unity. Russell doesn't think the happy-ish ending undermines authenticity. The final scene is a response to Pat Jr.'s earlier fit about Hemingway's need to be so dark.
"Is it so hard to come up with a happy ending?" Russell said, quoting Pat Jr. "I think that point of view is valid."