Silver Linings Playbook.
I meant to publish this post earlier, oy. Silver Linings Playbook was nominated for 8 Academy Awards this year, one of which Jennifer Lawrence won for her leading role in this picture (a character she admitted before accepting she absolutely did not understand, so kudos to her). In many ways, Silver Linings Playbook, a screen adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, is a conventional romantic comedy, and there are criticisms about it’s second half “predictability” that I agree with (but how many rom coms don’t have predictable endings?!). It is also one of the films I’ve watched this year that have moved me, to my surprise.
And this is why [spoilers ahoy! But read on anyway 😉 ].
The film is about Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man who has finally been diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder, a condition he has been struggling with unsupervised his whole life. It manifests in him as severe mood swings and “weird thinking” brought on by severe stress. The diagnosis was finally made while Pat was in a mental health treatment facility – a court ordered admission made after Pat, a substitute history teacher, beat the living shit out of the history teacher with tenure, who was having an affair with his wife, Nikki – also a teacher at the school. Prior to discovering them together, poor Pat had been having delusions about them anyway, and had caused all kinds of problems at the school with his behaviour.
So we meet Pat as he is being released from that facility and is taken home by his mother, Delores (Jacki Weaver). His father, however (Pat senior – played by Robert De Niro), is nervous about his son’s health and suitability to be at home, but Pat tries to reassure them both he is getting better. During his 8 months in the mental health treatment facility, and after losing everything – his wife, his job, his house – Pat’s recovery was driven by one obsession – “EXCELSIOR”, his new devout belief in positive thinking, and a desperate, burning drive to beat his illness and salvage his marriage. He explains this belief to his therapist thusly:
“This is what I believe to be true. This is what I learned in the hospital. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.”
So he returns to his hometown with that mission in mind, and even though Nikki has a restraining order against him, has sold their house and moved away, Pat refuses to let that “negativity”, or the well intentioned concern of his parents, deter him from this mission. Unfortunately, he wants to complete said mission without his meds, which he is ashamed to have to take (Pat also says they have adverse affects on his lucidity and bodily functions). Instead, he wants to control his illness naturally, through his “physicality” – working out, running outdoors daily.
Being off his meds make him manic though, in addition to having virtually no filter whatsoever, and a “trigger” song that causes him to lose his shit in distress whenever he hears it (either in reality or in his head). On his first night back home, whilst obsessively attempting to read the entire high school English syllabus his wife Nikki was teaching (perhaps in an effort to understand her better and increase his chances of a reunion) he has a rather violent (but hilarious) reaction to the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ – hurling it through a glass window at 4am (empathy, yo – I have a similar reaction to downer endings. Through the window with them all!!!).
Soon after he arrives back home, Pat reconnects with his old friend Ronnie (played loveably by John Ortiz) and Ronnie’s wife Veronica (sharp performance by Julia Stiles), a friend of Nikki who has always hated Pat. Despite that, she and Ronnie invite him over for dinner. They also invite Veronica’s troubled and widowed younger sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has had her own mental health issues and fronts a volatile manner. Veronica seems to be trying both to assess Pat’s progress for Nikki, and introduce the two “crazy” people to each other, so that they can possibly become friends or what have you.
And somehow, despite a very odd and very rocky start, they do eventually become friends – it is Tiffany who first sees a kindred spirit in Pat. She agrees to help Pat get a letter to Nikki in exchange for his participation with her in a dance contest – dancing is something she enjoys, and although not a professional by any means she considers it her “therapy”. At first he considers this a ridiculous and embarrassing request, but his desire to communicate with Nikki eventually persuades him to do it. So, in the name of rehearsing, they have to spend lot’s of time with each other, and in romantic comedies this is when the two leads fall in love (if not at first sight) – even if it takes them both (or just one of them) the whole movie to realise it.
This is where things get a little predictable, in the trajectory of the relationship between these two characters. Yet because they are played so well, so real, I didn’t mind one bit (good acting goes a long way). I enjoyed watching these two people help each other find some healthy focus in their lives – two lives that are really at desperately low points when they meet, with both living with their parents and trying to put themselves back together. These are not successful, winning, “normal” or glamourous characters, oh no. They are two people who have been broken, scarred, dealt dodgy hands in life, and made hideous mistakes because of their pain (i.e. people I can actually relate to). Tiffany is certainly no princess and Pat is no prince charming, and gosh I felt for them both. Weird.
Other than the two leads, I loved the other characters/relationships in this film: Pat’s strong friendship with Danny, whom he met in the mental health treatment facility (a surprisingly understated performance from Chris Tucker – more of this please, Mr Tucker); and Pat’s relationship with his aging parents, who love their son but are struggling to help him. Jacki Weaver’s portrayal of Delores is so beautiful to me. Her moments are brief, but Weaver’s face, manner and voice are so expressive, conveying all the frustration, helplessness, and heartbreak of watching someone you deeply love really battle against mental illness, against the demons in their head (again, familiar territory).
And Delores is not only worried for her son Pat, but lives with the stress of her husband Pat senior’s OCD and severely superstitious high stakes gambling habit – a habit that adds an interesting and new dimension to the romantic comedy premise’s conclusion. I loved Di Niro in this role. And though Jennifer Lawrence’s career and considerable talent is now taking off, it is strangely Jacki Weaver’s later life success I find most compelling – that is hope, right there. I’ll be watching whatever she does next with great interest.
So that’s why I was pleasantly surprised with Silver Linings Playbook, with its naturally acted humans and moments of humour, in what would otherwise be terribly grim circumstances. The film to me is not so much about what Pat’s character at one point describes as his “crazy sad shit”, but how people find the silver linings after, or in the midst of, all of that. And that’s an idea – that leaves me with a feeling – I could never get tired of.
“The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday, that’s guaranteed. And I can’t begin to explain that, or the craziness inside myself and everybody else, but guess what? Sunday is my favourite day again.”