Gary Thompson: Director David O. Russell, star Bradley Cooper created a flawed character for 'Silver Linings Playbook'

SEEING A movie star like you've never seen him before - it's an old pitch in movies but decidedly true of Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook."

Writer-director David O. Russell said his top priority was to give heartthrob Cooper a significant makeover in the movie, and a fresh start with audiences.

"I knew that I wanted to reintroduce him," said Russell, who cast the Abington native as Pat Solatano, an Upper Darby man just sprung from an institution where he received treatment in lieu of a criminal sentence stemming from an assault. An unlikely starting point for a romantic comedy, but "Silver Linings Playbook" is full of surprises, among them Cooper's new, jagged edges.

"It's so important because of the parallels to Pat, who's reintroducing himself to the community. He's saying, you think you know me, but hold on a second."

And Cooper, said Russell, is saying it too.

"The opening shot of the picture is on his back. And that was deliberate, to reintroduce people to Bradley. When we come out of [the shot], I want people to be saying, wait a minute, who's that? That's Bradley Cooper?"

Indeed it is, complete with a few imperfections invisible in his more glamorous roles.

"You know, he has some scars on his face. He's done some living. And we accentuated them, the scars. He's not perfect-looking. So you can read into [the character's] past anything that you want," Russell said.

Cooper's character has a checkered past related to mental problems only recently diagnosed. Russell's backstory for the character is a combination of Asperger's syndrome and bipolar disorder.

Pat's condition/diagnosis defines his important relationships. With his Eagles-loving father (Robert De Niro), who now understands a lifelong estrangement from his son. With a persistent prospective girlfriend (Jennifer Lawrence), who doesn't judge Pat's problems because she has so many of her own.

Much rides on Cooper's ability to sell Pat as a cauldron of emotion, ready to boil over - and to Russell's ability to give the audience permission to laugh. (Think of the way his "The Fighter" couched drug addiction and family dynamics.)

"When I first saw Bradley in 'Wedding Crashers,' my reaction was that he seemed like a truly angry person, and an intimidating person, and when I met him, I said that to him. And he said that he had been that, and he had gone through some transformation in his personal life. He had been acutely feeling other things but used anger to express them," Russell said.

Cooper's job in "Silver Linings" is to channel that anger into Pat. How does he do? At Toronto, where the movie won raves, the Hollywood Reporter cited Cooper for bringing "enormous heart" to a role that ranks as a career best.

"One of the great things about his face, that I love, is that it has so much character. From certain angles, he doesn't have the perfect, symmetrical face of Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. From certain angles he looks like a character actor. It just really depends on how you shoot him, what role he's playing."

Cooper worked hard on the role, studying the behavior of people with mental illness, trying to incorporate some of that behavior into Pat.

"When we first started shooting, it felt like it was too much," Russell said. "So we backed off that a little bit. But the interesting thing about the process is that even if that comes off, you end up bringing some of it to the role."

The same thing happened with Lawrence, he said.

"Like Jennifer, when we first drafted the character, I liked her being a rough girl, like these Suicide Girls, these girls who are very tough, with tattoos and all. And they're very sexy, but on their own terms. So initially she was very goth. And the first screen test we did horrified [producer] Harvey Weinstein," said Russell, laughing at the memory of Oscar-minded Weinstein wondering if his big holiday romance had gone off the rails.

"We ended up evolving away from that, but she carried it with her."

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