If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.

Silver Linings Playbook was looked upon as Robert De Niro’s return to “real acting” after a decade or so of moving away from “serious” fare. Indeed, his filmography from 2000-2012 is peppered with genre flicks, comedies and even some DTV fare.

While that period involved fewer collaborations with auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Alfonso Cuarón or Martin Scorsese and more mainstream fare like comedies (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Little Fockers and Showtime) fantasy films like the underrated Stardust and even an animated flick (Shark Tale), De Niro was enjoying the spoils of paycheck work without the hype or critical acclaim. 

Even as it represents a return to prestige form, Playbook still manages to be a bit of left-field casting. De Niro plays Patrizio Solitano, Sr., the exasperated father to Bradley Cooper’s bipolar Pat Jr. Writer-director David O. Russell, on the heels of critical acclaim for The Fighter (and surviving a famously contentious I Heart Huckabees shoot before that), again brought his unique brand of comedy and pathos to a film about two people finding love among mental illness in Philadelphia. 

Russell reported that De Niro became emotional upon reading the script, and De Niro was moved to tears on an episode of Katie Couric’s talk show as Russell recounted the story. In a lesser film, the senior Solitano would be a throwaway role — the disapproving, exasperated father. What could have been a sitcom sad sack became a meaty linchpin to Cooper’s character, providing a key insight into Pat Jr.’s neuroses and another adversary for Pat Jr. to square off with both physically and verbally, and brought another level of depth to the film as a whole. 

Russell’s masterful direction combined with DeNiro’s masterful screen presence is a gift to the film. Initially a reluctant spectator to Pat Jr.’s series of downward spirals, we get only hints at first. A line of dialogue that feels so throwaway it is easy to overlook altogether — Pat Jr. mentioning that his father was barred from Veterans Stadium on gameday — is the first hint that Patrizio has his own neuroses.

A dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphia Eagles fan who moonlights as a bookmaker, Patrizio looks at Pat Jr. as his good luck charm, to the point that he is literally willing to bet the farm based on his son’s mere presence. It’s not hard to infer that the pressure, combined with Patrizio’s obsession with his favorite team winning, is a key component in Pat Jr.’s problems. 

And Patrizio’s mania matches Pat Jr.’s. He, too, lost his job, and hopes to open a restaurant. He hopes to use his bookmaking to give him the capital to open that restaurant, and he believes that through Pat and his series of superstitions, he can will the Birds to victory. 

By pinning his hopes, his livelihood and his son’s self-worth on the outcomes of games on which they couldn’t possibly have any effect, Patrizio creates a culture of unreasonable expectations impossible for his son to meet. 

Between Russell’s masterful direction and De Niro’s effortless mastery of the character, Playbook weaves a tapestry of the complex family dynamics in working-class Philadelphia, a portrait of patriarchal toxicity where men are tricked into falling in love through subterfuge, all wrapped in a sweet romance between two people suffering from bipolar disorder. 

De Niro earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his turn in the film, losing out to Christoph Waltz’s turn as King Schultz in Django Unchained. But this experience led to three subsequent collaborations with Russell — a cameo in 2013’s American Hustle with Playbook co-stars Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, re-teaming with Lawrence in 2015’s Joy, and in 2022 with Amsterdam

And while the role didn’t spark another critical golden era in his career — for every The Irishman, there’s a Dirty Grandpa, The Bag Man and The Family — De Niro certainly could have done worse as a late-career resurgence. Playbook is a starkly understated gem in De Niro’s filmography, one more reminder that for four decades, he’s been one of cinema’s masters in whichever genre he chooses.