NEW YORK – In David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” Bradley Cooper plays an unstable former teacher trying to improve himself after exiting a mental institution. When his character, Pat Solitano, consults his otherwise level-headed psychiatrist Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher) on whether a Philadelphia Eagles’ jersey is appropriate attire for a dinner party, Patel questions which jersey. On hearing that it’s star wide-receiver DeSean Jackson, he responds unequivocally:
“DeSean Jackson is the man.”
This is Philadelphia, where undying loyalty to the local NFL team — “the Birds” — is everywhere, even in the sensitive relations between therapist and patient.
As large a role as football plays in American life, Hollywood has typically focused its cameras on the field of play, where the dramatics of gridiron battle are self-evident. But “Silver Linings Playbook,” which was recently nominated for five Spirit Awards and is widely expected to be a best picture Oscar contender, is more interested in the face-painters in the stands.
The annals of pigskin pictures have ranged from the hijinks of Groucho Marx (“Horse Feathers”) to the inspiration of a newcomer to the sport (“The Blind Side”). Football in movies has been a regular source of hard-knock action (“Any Given Sunday”), manly tragedy (“Brian’s Song,” “Remember the Titans”) and underdog triumph (“Rudy”).
But along with “Silver Linings Playbook,” a handful of films have sought to capture the fanatical passion — both the communal spirit and the toxic obsession — that grips millions of households and acres of parking-lot asphalt every Sunday this time of year.
In Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo `66” (1998), Gallo drew from his own childhood in the upstate New York city, playing a man named after the hometown team (Billy), with lifeless parents glued to the TV screen for Buffalo Bills games. A lost bet on a crucial game cost Billy $10,000 and put him in jail. On his exit, he’s bent on avenging the guilty place kicker, a fictionalized version of a real-life Bills scapegoat, kicker Scott Norwood.
“Big Fan” (2009), written and directed by Robert D. Siegel (who also wrote “The Wrestler”), depicted a die-hard New York Giants fan (Patton Oswalt) whose devotion is tested when he’s brutally assaulted by his favorite player.
The 2004 film “Friday Night Lights,” and the subsequent TV series, sought to portray a football-mad Texas town, where the sport reverberated in nearly all that was good — and all that was bad — in Dillon, Texas.
These movies all share in the spirit of Frederick Exley’s classic 1968 fictional memoir, “A Fan’s Notes.” The Giants-loving author wrote: “Cheering is a paltry description. The Giants were my delight, my folly, my anodyne, my intellectual stimulation. ... I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.”
It was that kind of intensity that interested Russell, whose last film, “The Fighter,” captured the boxing community of Lowell, Mass.
“What makes characters fascinating in a funny and an emotional way to me is when they have life and death stakes about their particular currency,” the director says. “So (Robert) De Niro’s currency was everything about the Eagles.”
As with many things in sports, the Eagles devotion in “Silver Linings Playbook” flows through the father, played by De Niro. He not only makes much of his living from the Eagles as a bookie, but he watches each game at home with obsessive-compulsive ardor. The fortunes of the Solitanos become inextricably linked with that of the Eagles.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick, a Philadelphia native who, reached by phone at his home in Massachusetts, makes no bones about his allegiance: “I bleed green,” he says.
“My earliest memories of my father are of going down to the Vet,” says Quick, referring to Veterans Stadium, the former home of the Eagles. “In the neighborhood I grew up in, the men didn’t tell you that they loved you or give you hugs, they took you to Eagles games,” says Quick. “If the Eagles scored a touchdown, you got a hug.”
“It’s such a metaphor for striving,” says Quick. “No matter what happens, there’s always that next game. There’s always that next season.”
The plot of “Big Fan” might suggest a more cynical view of football, but Siegel, too, is a lifelong sports fan. Growing up on Long Island, he became a devoted listener to the New York-area sports radio station WFAN. In the film, Oswalt’s character is a regular caller, dialing in like a performer with a nightly show.
“The callers seemed like these incredibly vivid, almost movie characters,” say Siegel. “You’ve got these ordinary working Joes taking on the machismo and testosterone of their heroes and doing it anonymously through the radio where it’s very safe. It’s kind of a form of fantasy play acting.”
As he treated a sport usually not taken seriously (professional wrestling) in “The Wrestler,” Siegel feels the often-disrespected sports fan is fertile, relatively unexplored territory.
“What (fans) are passionate about might seem silly to the outside observer,” says Siegel. “Certainly you could make the case that that’s very sad and pathetic, but I don’t. I admire their passion and I identify with it.”
“Sports fans are outsiders who feel like insiders,” he adds, “which is an interesting thing to explore.”