Football fans get a close-up in 'Silver Linings'

Football fans get a close-up in 'Silver Linings'
November 30, 2012, 4:15 pm
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NEW YORK (AP) 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.''

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