It had to happen. After seeing several good movies this year, I’ve come across one that I don’t really like at all. While Silver Linings Playbook might be wowing award panels left and right, is didn’t really impress me that much and I’ll tell try to tell you why. My problem is an internal uncomfortableness that I struggle to put into words adequately.
It’s an ok plot, but there isn’t really anything too extraordinary about it on the surface. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are too damaged people, who try and heal themselves through interactions with other, a lot of it in a subconscious sense. Both of them start with ulterior designs – Cooper’s Pat wants to get back together with the wife he drove away, Lawrence’s Tiffany wants to compete in a dance competition to help get over her dead husband (and sex addiction). They come to love each other. Credits.
The hook is the “damaged” part, that the two leads are involved in a somewhat warped love story through their own psychological hang ups and socially unacceptable bluntness. But herein lays the problem. For me, you cannot portray issues like mental illness and serious psychological damage as both serious and funny in a single scene, or across many scenes, not without ruining the tone of the movie. You just have to pick one. The issue is too serious to flip back and forth between tonal range. Efforts to portray Pat’s inability to guard against what he says as funny before showing his bi-polar disorder as incredibly harmful to his family relationships just don’t work for me. I understand that people with bi-polar disorders make jokes, that isn’t my issue. The issue is the way that the normal problems associated with the disorders are framed in such a way in Silver Linings Playbook as to be viewed comically, from Pat’s inquiring into Tiffany’s sex addiction to Chris Tucker’s character constantly breaking out of the mental hospital, to Robert De Niro’s OCD.
It’s the Sheldon problem. I can’t really laugh at Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory because he being autistic and presumably an Asperger’s sufferer is the joke. I don’t find that kind of humour appealing. Silver Linings Playbook is similar territory in that I don’t find such mental illness amusing, but it adds this flipflop atmosphere that just makes the issue worse. Silver Linings Playbook is trying to have its cake and eat it too by framing these mental illnesses as both funny and dramatic and it makes for an inadequate film experience.
Add in the classic “rom-com” beats – boy has problem situation, meets girl, woos girl, obstacles’, wacky bystander characters, gets over obstacles, romance, end – and Silver Linings Playbook is just trying to be too many things. It would be quite a feat to pull it off and I just don’t think that it does. Little bit of a sports film in there too, especially in the last half hour. There is other dark stuff (like the smiling best friend declaring how miserable his life is) that works a bit better as black humour, but otherwise just adds to the depression piling up on screen that is supposed to be just brushed aside when Pat says something awkward and the set-up, reaction and visuals indicate it’s supposed to be a laugh riot.
This is the kind of film that has to commit to something, beyond the somewhat misleading promotional material (which heavily emphasised the rom-com feel). Ruby Sparks pulled that stunt too, but was a fine movie in its own right when you got over the lies that helped bring you into the cinema. Silver Linings Playbook cannot say the same.
That’s not to say that the film is a total loss, there are some very good moments. Anything that involves dancing, right up to the hilariously botched final move (probably the funniest and most “real” moment in the production) is great. Pat going to the football game as part of his recovery only to get involved in a fistfight was a great piece of cinema, a classic bait and switch when it comes to recovery. The many breakdown scenes were enthralling enough, well positioned so as not to overwhelm the audience. The pacing is fine here; it’s just the content that bothers me. Scenes of the two leads in a romantic context, like in the diner, didn’t work for me at all, because of the aforementioned distaste for treating mental illness is a humorous fashion. I accept that this is a personal hang-up that others might not share, and that’s fine. I just don’t find it funny. Anything where mental illness is shown as “quirky” will nearly always fail with me.
As an example, I’ll illustrate a scene where a jogging Pat accosts his former boss in order to ask for his job back, uncomprehending of a restraining order or her horror at his aggressive demeanour. I understand this doesn’t have to be viewed as a humorous scene, but the music, the camera work, the incomprehension of what he is doing wrong, the desperateness of the employer to get away from the situation all serve to make it a comedy bit. I just don’t think that kind of thing is funny at all.
The big, big positive is the two leads and they are great. Cooper could do with being in a few more serious films, he has real presence and drama talent if it was utilised in the right way. If this was just a purely serious examination of recovery from mental breakdown, I’d have nothing but praise and a lot of it would be for Cooper. His Pat is a broken man and he shows that vividly, the hang-ups over his wedding song, the flashbacks, the pained expression of a man who is simply trying his best to get his life back in order and hates that he keeps failing. He flips between manic episodes and genuine charm very well and I think he nails the difficulties of bi-polarism very well. The framing of humour around him simply distracts. If I can expand on one thing, it’s his subtle, silent longing for Tiffany as time goes by, the glances, the repressed lust, the guilt so clear on his face as he tries to get over it. Despite the fact that his marriage is long over, Cooper portrays a man guilty about his attraction to Tiffany very well. It isn’t something he has to verbally get out, it’s all in the body language and the eyes.
Lawrence is turning out to be one of the great actresses of recent times. She’s very beautiful in a way that should have the Kirsten Stewert brigade of stick figure actresses taking notes. She’s damaged and disturbed, but retains an allure that draws Cooper in. I liked her aloofness and fake-casual nature at the start, the genuine hurt when Pat is dismissive of their dancing, the happiness at the conclusion. It kind of fits the character that her expression is mostly blank, and her best moments of emotion are ones of quiet anger or vindictive bitterness. I think I liked most her calm, rational and level-headed approach to Pat’s father (De Niro) when he has his own little episode after the Eagles lose. Lawrence is a delight and I could have watched a bit more of her verbally sparring with Copper if they hadn’t been framed as comedic moments as much.
The rest of the cast serve as place-holders, mostly one note. Robert De Niro has somehow got an Oscar nomination out of this and I’m baffled. He’s bipolar-lite, has an all-too-brief emotional moment with his son and becomes increasingly manic and odd towards the conclusion. Frankly, I thought this was a sub-par outing from a very accomplished actor. He’s big bit is his “seize the day” declaration at the end, but that was little more than what it was in the trailers. Jacki Weaver is a little better as the distressed wife/mother, and doesn’t get to be much besides distressed.
Everyone else is one dimensional. John Ortiz is the aforementioned best friend, who maintains this cheery disposition while speaking about his miserable life, and his little sub-plot gets a rushed and unsatisfactory conclusion. Julia Stiles is his wife, who’s a nasty little character, who seems to exist just to irritate others. Chris Tucker is the “wacky” rom-com requirement as the mental patient who just keeps on escaping and later offers dance tips. Dash Mihok has an aborted role as police officer Keogh (which he pronounces “key-oh” as opposed to the correct “ke-yoo”), a role which seems to have some importance before he vanishes after a clumsy come on to Tiffany. Paul Herman has a nothing part as Pat’s brother. Shea Wigham is somewhat interesting as Pat Sr’s friend Jake. Anupam Kher rounds of the cast as the decent Dr. Patel who gets some brief deadpan humour when discussing the Eagles. As an aside, that only happens after a bizarrely cruel “triggering” exercise the doctor performs on Pat without his consent, which after a brief word with a few professionals in the fields involved, seems like a gross violation of medical ethics being depicted. Considering the tension of that part of the movie is supposed to be that Pat is close to being sent back to the mental hospital, having his court-appointed therapist provoke him in such a manner made for uncomfortable viewing.
Cooper and Lawrence are getting the vast majority of the screentime and nearly everyone else is just propping them up, with no opportunity to show off.
Visually, it’s nothing notable. Director David O. Russell opts for plenty of in-close shots of faces with his two leads and their interactions with others, which offers plenty of scope for nuanced acting ability and greatly aids the notability of the two leads performances. The dance scenes are shot very well, from the practice hall to the competition itself, the right mix of cuts and panning shots. There is a slight documentary style to things on occasion, with the camera nearly always up close and personal with the cast and the location and I found that it worked well enough and was never too jarring. This is supposed to be a very personal story I suppose, so a more intimate shooting style is to be expected and appreciated.
Some of the metaphors being employed are a bit obvious, none worse than the picture of Pat lying lower than his brothers on the wall when he first returns from the mental hospital. That was eye-rollingly bad. The use of the song “My Cherie Amour” as a trigger for Pat works a bit better and the retelling of how that came to pass is another of Silver Linings Playbook’s better moments. But that little bit of the character vanishes halfway through never to be referenced again and I guess we’re supposed to just expect that Pat got over it. It might have been nice to address that more concretely, but maybe it just didn’t gel with the more humorous/romantic parts that make up much of the second half of the production.
The script is decent and the dialogue matches what you would expect from the two main characters being presented though, as stated, I found the humour parts very hard to swallow. Better is the awkward, pained interaction between Pat and his family which is a more accurate representation of life with such mental issues. There is a bit of monologue-ing on occasion, but those moments are at least framed well in the form of therapy sessions or genuine pouring of hearts. I can credit Silver Linings Playbook with depicting a realistic family life and reaction to the problems of bi-polarism and such, at least for the most part. I especially liked Pat’s back and forth with his therapist in their sessions, like his recounting of the “incident” with his cheating. His explanation of the exact trigger point – when the “other man” tells him to leave his own home while in the act of adultery – is a riveting scene and certainly makes you empathise with Pat a bit more.
I liked the soundtrack, fairly contemporary with some well included nostalgia callbacks for the dance montages. It’s an under-appreciated skill, the ability to insert actual songs into a movie in order to add to emotion or frame it in the right way, and Silver Linings Playbook does that from Pat’s running songs, to the dance tracks, to the very subtle score that plays in the background almost unnoticeably.
The themes of Silver Linings Playbook are obvious enough, the major one being that of recovery and who motivates and helps you achieve it. Both Pat and Tiffany need the other to achieve their goals of retaining a degree of normalcy and only get that when they really open up to each other, visually portrayed in the form of their dance routine. That recovery is the crucial point for both characters, as having ebbed and flowed in their rehabilitation, they wind up discovering that, in line with their recovery, they are better of off with each other than being either alone or chasing a doomed relationship. Nikki as a motivation for Pat is a flawed one and his journey in Silver Linings Playbook is all about coming to realise that fact. Pat comes to understand that his dependence on his wife is misplaced and simply lets her go in as calm a manner as possible, the ultimate victory in his war against his own episodes. Tiffany lets her sex addiction and self-destructive nature pass her by after nearly falling back into the habit, all things that are framed around the final dance scene. As well as that, Pat’s best friend has to try and recover his own damaged marriage, his father has to try and recover from some employment problems and his own OCD/betting hang-ups, Chris Tucker has to put his mental issues behind him (yeah, I’m reaching a bit with that last one). The person who helps them is Pat, even if they don’t quite realise it, just as they help Pat.
The other major theme for me was transference, an all too common danger when recovering from any kind of addiction, whether it is to sex in the case of Tiffany or anger in the case of Pat. Transference can be positive and negative, and Silver Linings Playbook aims to show it in a positive light. Pat starts out obsessed with repairing a marriage that is long past saving, his focal point and motivation for his mental recovery. He becomes obsessed, as part of this, with improving himself both physically and mentally, transferring his aggressive energy into running and reading. He turns aside from a previous Eagles obsession, until his father bluntly tells him that their relationship revolves around it. He gradually turns his gaze to Tiffany, first through the medium of dance as a healing exercise, than in a more overt romantic manner.
Tiffany does much the same, placing the entirety of her friendship with Pat on the same level as their dance practice, using their positive, encouraging relationship as a method of turning aside from her past indiscretions. She later uses the same thing as a way of improving his home life, albeit in a more straightforward manner with the “parley” bet, which is used as a way to tackle Pat Sr’s OCD and superstition issues. Such transference, a subconscious thing really, is part and parcel of the mental recovery and is seen in other parts of the movie. The best friend has warped his expectations of being happy with his wife and child and struggles with the realisation. Every character seems to have an obsession with the Eagles. Pat Sr transfers the love for his son into a sporting addiction due to his inability to emote those feelings properly.
Lastly, there is the theme of “good” and “bad” love whether it is the romantic or family sense. Pat’s infatuation with his cheating wife is bad, an obsession that is a wound in his psyche. Only when he realises the better love waiting for him does he let it go. Tiffany finds solace after her husband’s death in a strong of illicit encounters, but only finds true recovery with something more stable and fulfilling. Pat’s marital family fails him completely but his paternal one supports him admirably.
In conclusion, I can only say that Silver Linings Playbook isn’t funny enough to be a comedy, isn’t romantic enough to be a rom-com, isn’t sporty enough to be a sports movie and isn’t serious enough to be a drama. It’s trying to be a jack of all trades and becomes a master of none. To my personal tastes, the occasionally humorous tone when dealing with mental problems was jarring and the general rom-com pacing and set-up detracted from some fine leading performances and decent script-work. Over-rated for me and certainly not NFB awards material.
(All images are copyright of The Weinstein Company).