Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell)
The director of this film was until recently best known for the strange trifecta of Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees; despite his mainstream breakthrough The Fighter being evidently a much more middle-of-the-road film, you can forgive someone for thinking it sort of impossible that the same David O. Russell who’s courted so many varieties of controversy already would be behind the helm of a completely ordinary romantic comedy in the Jerry Maguire vein. I say that not as a pejorative necessarily (though can we all admit now that we were victims of the crack epidemic in 1996 when we made Maguire a smash?), as such films can be skillfully and admirably handled and there was actually a time in world history when “romantic comedy” was a genre and not a blackened paintbrush, but you still run through trailers for Silver Linings Playbook, then all of the acclaim that it’s earned, and then the film itself continually expecting some skeleton in the closet or some dark, acerbic twist. None of this ever comes. It’s a defiantly conventional film and one that, in years past, would’ve been a big florid studio picture. Now it’s viewed as practically arthouse Oscar bait because the big studios won’t touch small cinema any longer, even when it’s only small in comparison to The Avengers.
We’re not really here to argue about the merits of Hollywood today, but that peripheral discomfort is inevitably on one’s mind throughout Silver Linings, which is an often delightful film but one you simply expect to give you more than it does. Surely writer-director Russell’s take on the oft-repeated genre will offer us something we’ve not seen before? It doesn’t, though, not really, although it plays with a few big issues unique to it with which it ultimately can’t truly engage — namely, mental illness and slut-shaming. The story essentially is of a depressed man whose wife has recently left him after a violent episode, ostensibly an outgrowth of his discovery that she was cheating on him. In flashbacks we learn that he beat her lover within an inch of his life and somehow we never become convinced that any civilized person would have even a momentary lapse into crazy quite so brutal. Russell, known for his outrageous on-set temper tantrums, seems to feel he knows better but never sells us this angle. So as Pat (Bradley Cooper) — a teacher, just like his wife — begins to try and put his life back together with the wide-eyed overgrown childishness of a sexually charged teenager, sitcom character or Apatow “bro,” he runs by way of third-hand relationships across the striking, wounded widow Tiffany, a character that young (some say too young) Jennifer Lawrence enlivens with the absolutely soul-stirring grace and comic timing of Veronica Lake or Barbara Stanwyck in the old Preston Sturges films.
But Russell is not Preston Sturges. Nor Howard Hawks, nor Billy Wilder, nor James L. Brooks, nor even John Hughes. His dialogue never sparkles or simmers, neither poetic nor realistic, and his situations are a bit rote — things progress as you’d expect, with a wonderful dance motif and an extremely tiresome football motif mixed in, and it all ends quite winningly and predictably and that’s kind of what we paid for, so no carp there. But one thing Russell has accomplished, at least in the first half of the film, is crafting a vivid character in the form of Tiffany, whose sexual vivaciousness is a function of her pure independence, a feature that Pat can never once claim throughout the narrative, to such an extent that the much older-looking Cooper seems to us by the end of the film far less an adult than Lawrence, who’s barely out of playing teen heroines. Lawrence has the film’s most remarkable moment, and one that allows Russell to harp on deservedly about a distinctly American fear of sexuality that has manifested itself even in the reviews of this film, which claim Tiffany’s habitual sleeping around after her husband’s death as some sort of a mental defect. Interested in the doe-eyed Pat from the start, she regales him in a cleverly written restaurant scene with stories of her erotic escapades and he flinches and gets publicly turned on but then composes himself and articulates his guilt… then proceeds, shortly thereafter, to guilt her about her supposed “damaged-goods” sluttiness.
Suddenly Lawrence — with Russell in tow — explodes with something like passion, passion that bursts out of the staid and unconditional movie frame for the only time in these 122 minutes (in case you’re keeping score, that’s approximately 32 minutes longer than a comedy this thin should ever be, under any circumstances). “I was a slut,” Tiffany belts. “There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same for yourself, fucker? Can you forgive? Are you capable of that?” And most importantly, she implores this man who still thinks he’s married and still carries the most futile kind of a torch: “You are afraid to be alive. You are afraid to live.” It’s noisy or else I’d evoke the pin drop — Lawrence taps into something real and deeply felt here. I wish there was anything else in the movie quite so raw and real and righteous; Pat’s shaming of her choices and her promiscuity are an old world stereotype that Hollywood has done little to conquer, has in fact perpetuated, and we come close here to repudiating it explicitly. But the film teeters over this risky edge and then, with Oscars in its eyes, stops short and returns to an obsessively moral Hays code mentality as soon as Tiffany instantly forgives Pat for his fatal insults to her, much as the movie forgives him before it even begins for acting out more brutishly than anyone reading this probably ever even could. But I give Russell ample credit for even touching these issues.
He’s been castigated by many for glossing over the mental illness problem, and that more than anything is an issue with his script. Cooper’s character is never properly sold as having any serious issues besides being a grieving person who’s just gone through a breakup and being kind of a gross dickbag in general; we never believe that he was anything besides a douche with anger issues when he acted out, or that he’s now anything beyond a typically lost partner dealing with one of the most painful crises we all, every one of us, face sooner or later. The one serious exception to this is a sequence involving his desperate search for an old wedding video, culminating in another lashing out and police being called, which calls into question whether he’s even suited for life outside a cell, much less a pending partnership with another human being. There’s also some shit about Pat’s dad (Robert de Niro) having OCD and that is what it is, mostly an excuse for movie buffs to reminisce about all the Robert de Niro movies they love that I can’t stand so I just ignored him, which is kinda easy! Aside from that, my problem is less that the film is lofty and romanticized in its treatment of mental illness than that it barely makes its characters believably problematic in this regard. Tiffany is even less convincing as a person experiencing anything beyond normal grief (she handles the actual death of a loved one far better than Pat handles being separated) and enjoying her status as a young woman people want to be with. She’s a human, which in movie parlance is shorthand for “weirdo.”
I’m making this all sound worse than it is — it’s a far better than average romcom and works great as a date-night movie, it just doesn’t merit the hype it’s been afforded and would play more strongly without the fever-pitch ecstasy it’s been weirdly gaining. The Cooper-Lawrence relationship develops quite organically even if one of them is far more interesting than the other, and the use of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s “Girl from the North Country” and Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” are two of my favorite recent music-supervision moments in film (the unfinished invocation of “My Cherie Amour” is one of my least favorite, overly emphasizing a plot thread Russell hasn’t time or interest in resolving, in regard to Pat having flashbacks to the Incident whenever he hears it). And the comedy climax of the dancefloor routine is the sort of small-time absurdity I do dearly love, especially the moment when a low score causes collective cheering on the part of our heroes and everyone else stands baffled. There are wonderfully natural and therefore amusing exchanges between Cooper and Lawrence throughout, especially their early banter about ordering raisin bran at a restaurant. And there’s catharsis in any comedy when the couple gets together, even if it’s all so bleeding obvious and cowardly, and it feels good to see Lawrence chilling cheerfully in a chair at the finale, even if we know she hates football and is there simply to fit in with Pat’s extremely limited and macho view of the world, but we digress.
We must discuss the real reason for critical slobbering over the film, specifically middle-aged straight male slobbering over the film, and that of course is the magnetic sensuality of everything Lawrence does for the duration. Am I nailing them over this? No, because as much as I swore I was immune, I’m no better — I already had a crush on Lawrence before we went to see this and I’m a dumb male who fawned over her for the duration of the film and had a nice time doing so, but you know, Grace Kelly made a lot of movies and only one of them was Rear Window, and this is not Lawrence’s Rear Window. But yes, she is lovely in the film and gives a very good performance, and I did not mind gazing upon her for two hours, and I cannot claim this does not influence my overall opinion of the movie, since its story hinges entirely upon her desirability. I imagine it should be fun to watch any straight man’s reaction to her anecdote at the diner, as well; the less hypocritical ones, unlike Pat, shouldn’t shame themselves or Tiffany over it or think of her joyous open eroticism as something she’s supposed to “get over.”
But enough about my hormones. Tiffany was all we remembered after we left the theater and felt pleasantly breezy, but check it: you’ve already forgotten, but there was all this shit about football in the movie too! And some sort of wager, and a conflict between family and romance vying for Pat’s true heart! And De Niro really was there, you didn’t just dream it. (I quite enjoyed Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mom; she’s the only supporting character who really lands.) Also Julia Stiles was there, and lots of back story about Pat’s marriage and separation and holy shit we were really supposed to believe that Pat was ever a teacher, in a high school, of children. Seriously. The man is not an adult, and herein lies our Dark Side.
Just for instance, the funniest moment in the movie was Bradley Cooper tossing A Farewell to Arms out the window and confronting his parents about how terribly bleak it was. First of all, please don’t throw library books out the window; thank you. But also, in a comedy that hinges on being somewhat realistic, cartoonishly sociopathic behavior like this, while it may score a cheap but enduring laugh, doesn’t help us feel great about Pat’s depth and responsibility. We have trouble imagining that he was ever mature enough to hold a job or to maintain a marriage. Or that his wife ever wasn’t scared of him. At least, in some scenes; in other scenes, he seems like a pretty average middle American “dude” though still not teachning material. He does fucked up stuff and never really changes or learns anything, just gets everything he wants and things return to normal. We accept this because Russell never makes up his mind about what character he’s even writing about. The romantic lead of one scene is the whiny, clueless baby of another. And he’s our protagonist yet we’re never even remotely let in on the process that holds his transition from a pining for his wife to falling in love with Tiffany. Which amps up the surprise in the climactic moment but also shows that we never really know this character.
Tiffany can’t be thoroughly acquitted here either. It’s a personal pet peeve going all the way back to Amelie, but I’ve never been a fan of the deceit-leads-to-lifelong-romance line of thought in stories, novels, movies; isn’t it kind of a little fucked up that she brings supposed fellow weirdo Pat on board with her awkward but adorable dance competition interest through forging a letter and pretending it’s from erstwhile wife Nikki? (The moment when Pat realizes this is coincidentally but interestingly near-identical to a plot point in the little-seen but wonderful Israeli film Footnote.) That’s a mean thing to do with a near-homicidal maniac. Maybe she is a little messed up, just a little. But I’m going on and on again. See this with your sweetie, especially if s/he doesn’t mind you gazing up at Jennifer Lawrence, especially if s/he will do the same thing. Equality, that’s what we’re about.