Disclaimer: I never meant to write 2000+ words about Silver Linings Playbook, and I typically try not to write this much about something I don’t have the immediate opportunity to watch again (and again) to support or challenge my opinions. Basically, I’m saying that I only saw this movie once (a couple of weeks ago) and my thoughts may change if/when I see it again. I may be over-analyzing this romantic comedy and I’ll admit that I haven’t read the Matthew Quick novel that it is based on, so I can’t comment on the adaptation. That said, I welcome any thoughts or criticisms that might allow me to consider the film from a different perspective. Also, there are a lot of SPOILERS below (particularly after the plot summary section). You probably wouldn’t find this post interesting, if you find it interesting at all, unless you’ve seen the film anyway.
As I began to hear the positive buzz about Silver Linings Playbook, I was interested and hopeful that the film would be a return to what I loved about the work of director David O. Russell.
I’m not a David O. Russell fan from way back. I’ve never seen his debut feature, Spanking the Monkey, and I only recently caught up with and enjoyed Flirting with Disaster, but when I first saw Three Kings, I was blown away. In 1999, a year featuring several great movies, Three Kings just might be my favorite. It is a wonderfully offbeat mix of comedy (and comedy styles), action (I remember Cinescape magazine perhaps overpraising it as one of the top 25 action movies of all time), and human drama (though admittedly, it falls a bit short on this front). It plays like a comedic heist caper, set against the backdrop of the Gulf War, a conflict seldom explored on film either before or since. One thing I especially loved was Russell’s stylistic flourishes including flashbacks, fantasy cutaways, desaturated colors and one of the most unique shootouts put to film.
Russell followed up Three Kings with I Heart Huckabees, a film that was highly anticipated by yours truly. The strangeness (or quirkiness?) present in Three Kings is taken to another level in a film about existential angst explored through Russell’s wacky visuals and set to philosophy-heavy dialogue that is, perhaps knowingly, impenetrable, but often insightful. The “science” isn’t as important as the connections these characters in Huckabees make and break throughout the film. In the end, it’s a messy, sometimes confusing, but entirely enjoyable and original bit of film-making.
Then came The Fighter. As an aside, I’d LOVE to finally see a version of Nailed, Russell’s filmed, but unfinished 2008 film, which sounded like it would be a more fitting follow up/addition to Russell’s ouvre as it existed at the time. I don’t dislike The Fighter, but upon seeing it, I had a difficult time finding David O. Russell anywhere in the film. It seemed as if Russell had given up on his unique style to direct a film that could arguably be considered the definition of Oscar bait. Of course, Russell is known for several behind-the-scenes difficulties and Huckabees was far from a hit, so maybe he needed to get back into the good graces of the Hollywood community (there’s a broad generalization for you). Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including a directing nod for Russell) and winning two (supporting awards for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo), The Fighter clearly increased Russell’s status.
So here we are with Silver Linings Playbook. I think it’s a step up from The Fighter, but I wouldn’t consider it a return to Russell’s roots. The film begins with Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) being released from a psychiatric hospital. Diagnosed as bipolar, Pat has been there since he had a psychotic break after walking in on his wife cheating on him with one of her co-workers. Now Pat is out and he wants to get his life back on track and try to rekindle his marriage, despite the fact that everyone around him seems to know it’s over, and the fact that he has a restraining order so he can’t see or talk to her.
Pat moves in with his parents Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Pat Sr. is a small time bookie who has an unhealthy obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s also ridiculously superstitious about Eagles games, going as far as dictating where the remote controls need to be and also who gets to hold his lucky handkerchief. Pat Sr. wants to raise enough money with his bookmaking to open a restaurant. Dolores is a put-upon homemaker who has dealt with Pat Sr. for so long that she’s forgotten any other life. She’s reduced to making “crabby snacks and home-mades” over and over again on game days, while looking timid and concerned.
Things change a bit for Pat when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the sister-in-law of a friend of his. Tiffany is dealing with her own problems, the biggest of which is the death of her police officer husband, Tommy. She and Pat start a (mostly) good-naturedly antagonistic relationship which eventually begins to grow into something more as these two broken people start to heal.
Obviously, there are more ins and outs of the plot and more characters filling this world—including Chris Tucker as a fellow psych patient, Julia Stiles as Tiffany’s sister and Boardwalk Empire’s own Shea Whigham as Pat’s older brother—but you can see the movie for all of that (and hopefully you already have, if you’re going to continue reading this). The cast isn’t an issue with Silver Linings Playbook as everyone of consequence is played incredibly well. This may even be De Niro’s best work of the past decade (or longer). My biggest problems with the film are the odd tonal shifts which, in my opinion, don’t entirely work for a film that is being sold as a romantic comedy-drama.
Much of the humor in Playbook is found in Pat’s awkward interactions with others, and the playful parts of his relationship with Tiffany. That said, wherever I found a laugh in the film, I also found myself second-guessing my reaction. Should I really be laughing at this man who clearly has mental issues that are tearing at him and his family? I guess that’s the definition of dark humor, but I don’t think it plays out like that. I think Russell (or at least the studio) is trying to sell the film’s humor to broad audiences, who may not consider Pat’s mental state as thoughtfully when they’re getting a superficial chuckle out of him meeting Tiffany by asking how Tommy died. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, maybe I’m more concerned about Pat than I really should be, and maybe this is just nit-pickery, but I think the film’s troubles with balancing tone are more far-reaching.
Beyond the dark humor, Playbook deals with some heavy issues: institutionalization, mental health disorders, death of a spouse, familial dysfunction, etc…. There are a couple of intense scenes between Pat and his parents where the shouting, crying and emotional and physical violence are a bit disturbing. Notably, these scenes take place before Pat goes back on his meds. I don’t believe that Russell is advocating for modern medicine, but the frequency and severity of Pat’s manic mood swings significantly decrease for the rest of the film. Regardless, these scenes stand in contrast to what we might expect from a comedy. Sure, it’s funny when Pat throws A Farewell to Arms through a window and proceeds to go on a rant about how terrible Hemingway is for making us feel so bad after reading his novel. However, when he’s doing this at 3AM and waking up his parents, I can see how clearly affected he is by this and the laughs don’t come quite as easily. Once he’s on his meds, Pat’s moods are more leveled which eases some of the tension. Still, I was anticipating another episode–which dramatically probably should have happened after Pat learns something about a certain letter from his wife–though it never comes.
Also, as fun as De Niro is playing the tough, sports-obsessed and frustrated Pat Sr., it’s evident upon reflection that his relationships with everyone else in the film are tragically stunted, if not irreparably broken. He’s a father who never learned to connect with or love his children traditionally. Sure, he’s probably had the hard life as a provider and all that, but it’s incredibly sad to see him fail in his attempts to bond with his son through sports, the only thing he knows. The fact that the outcome of a football game plays a part in “saving” his family in the end is perhaps appropriate, but also a convenience that undercuts any real growth for this group of people. We never get any catharsis or deeper healing with Pat Sr., we just get reinforcement of the status quo (and perhaps a new restaurant).
Then there’s the romantic comedy. The romance between Pat and Tiffany, two people who are recovering from having their worlds shattered, is played and written well. There’s a degree of predictability involved in some of their interactions (particularly surrounding Tiffany’s acting as a go-between for Pat and his oft-mentioned, seldom seen wife), but I think their relationship is probably the best part of the movie, along with some of the more dramatic moments early in the film. I’m sometimes surprised that Lawrence is only 22, although she does look rather young to be a widow, which then makes me wonder if it’s weird that Cooper is 37.
As fun as the romance between the two leads is to watch, the climax of their story is just a bit too “easy” for a film that has decided to present us with so many difficult human issues. Tiffany has convinced Pat to be her partner in a dance competition in return for promising to pass a letter on to Pat’s wife. When Pat misses an important dance practice because he’s trying to bond with his brother and please his father by going to an Eagles game (a game on which Pat Sr. has bet all of his restaurant money because he thinks Pat is good luck) everything comes to a head. Pat and his brother are involved in a fistfight with some other Eagles fans in the tailgate area. They never see the game and the Eagles lose. Superstitious Pat Sr., feels let down, plus he’s lost everything. A betrayed Tiffany shows up and a huge shouting match takes place in the Solitano living room. Everyone is yelling and crying so much that it seems like a Cassavetes film. Then things abruptly change as a solution presents itself. In a funny, though tonally ill-fitting moment, Tiffany convinces Pat Sr. that she is really the good luck charm for his Eagles. Pat Sr.’s buddy agrees to give him a chance to win his restaurant money back, double or nothing, by betting on another Eagles game as well as betting on Pat and Tiffany scoring at least a 5 (out of 10) in the dance competition. We’ve gone from kitchen sink melodrama to “let’s win a dance contest to save the family” in less than 3 minutes. It’s crazy.
From there we get the final act with the football game on TV, the dance competition, and the added pressure of Pat’s wife showing up to watch the performance. It plays out as expected. The Eagles win. Pat and Tiffany dance, which I quite liked, and mange to score exactly 5. Their subsequent elation at achieving the lowest score out of every couple is funny in the moment, but it kind of plays out like the “let’s celebrate our own individuality” moment when the entire family gets on stage at the beauty contest in Little Miss Sunshine. It’s not a new situation, and thus not surprising when the outcome is exactly as it should be, though that’s the nature of rom-coms. Also in keeping with tradition, we get a last bit of tension as Tiffany runs away thinking that Pat and his wife are getting back together. Pat chases after Tiffany and the two declare their love for each other with a triumphant long-distance dolly-out on their kiss.
So where do I stand? I don’t dislike the film, and the more I write about it, the more interesting I think it is. I think I see more of the Russell I like in Playbook than I did in The Fighter, but I also see a lot that seems too familiar. I feel like Russell is trying to maintain the mass appeal and good will he achieved with The Fighter by turning this story of dark dysfunction into a film that is more predictable and palatable. Something is lost in the transformation. There’s half of a really interesting, dark comedy-drama character study in here, and there’s half of a slightly more offbeat romantic-comedy, but these two halves are at odds, each pulling a bit too far in their own directions for the film to cohere completely. I feel like the beating, bleeding heart of the film is too easily bypassed with the quick fixes of traditional romantic-comedy tropes.
Silver Linings Playbook is often as bipolar as its main character, a quality which is potentially brilliant if it is a conscious choice, but which is more likely an indicator of a film that isn’t exactly sure what it wants to be.