Hemingway? Mental Illness? Cliche? Another Look at ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

I’m on record loving David O. Russell‘s Silver Linings Playbook and even though it’s now starting to look like Jennifer Lawrence may lose the Best Actress Oscar race to Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), that doesn’t change my opinion on the film overall. Oscars don’t really hold that kind of a sway over me. However, after watching the film again last week, a certain scene stuck out to me that didn’t necessarily hit me the first time I saw it… most likely because I didn’t need the convincing.

Some have been complaining about the film’s cliches and formulaic finale. Okay, but if you are to dismiss Silver Linings on these merits then I have to assume there is no level of romantic comedy that entertains or moves you because it’s either this or something with Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson, coated in sugar and all manner of sweeteners. By comparison there is no comparison.

This isn’t Something Borrowed or Made of Honor. While the story is one we can all piece together, where we find its soul is in its characters and the honest and authentic approach to them and their problems. The film has a basis in reality and while Russell wholeheartedly realizes it’s a story familiar enough to all of us, at the same time he cuts the crap and grinds it down to Earth. It’s a film about love, family and mental illness and it’s romantic, dramatic and, at times, unsettling. It doesn’t end on a dark note, but those notes are played throughout and early on Russell gives us a clear sign he wants us to know what to expect.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) first returns home from his mandatory eight months in a state institution and as a part of picking up the pieces he’s determined to read all the books on his ex-wife’s syllabus, beginning with Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms“. He finishes the book and at 4 in the morning and, in a fit of disgust, tosses it through the upstairs window, out onto the lawn before rushing to his parents’ room yelling:

Obviously what I want to focus on, beyond the foreshadowing of the dancing that is to come, here is the ending of Pat’s rant where he says, “[T]he world’s hard enough as it is, guys. It’s fucking hard enough as it is. Can’t somebody say, ‘Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?’” The entirety of this film is right there in a single sound bite and it makes me wonder, just what would the naysayers have to say had Russell ended the film a little differently?

How about this…?

After winning the dance competition, Pat gets back together with his ex-wife, sending Tiffany over the edge, further down the dark hole she was attempting to climb out of? What if, in that same scenario, Pat ends up having another breakdown? What if he ends up beating Nikki a few short months after their reconciliation and has to go back to the hospital? Or worse, what if he kills her, or someone he suspects is looking at her the wrong way or with romantic intent? Would that have been better?

Yes, Silver Linings does have its share of cliches, and I can understand any frustration people may have with it, but that frustration comes as a result of so many films using those cliches for evil. Silver Linings earns its formulaic conclusion through honest portrayals of its characters. The cliches here are more as a result of human nature, and less a result of Hollywood storytelling.

The problem with today’s formulaic rom-coms isn’t necessarily the ending, it’s all the crap that comes before it. We all know the guy and the girl are going to get together 99% of the time, but the journey you take in getting there is what’s important.

Then we get to the film’s approach to mental illness, another major area of contention for some while discussing the film.

Many have contested Russell’s approach to the subject of mental illness saying it “advocates a faith-based view of mental illness” and that “Russell puts the central issue out of play. Pat, after nearly a year of obsessions and hallucinations, simply resolves the problem.”

These responses are curious because Pat’s bi-polar, manic nature is never abandoned and, in fact, several angles are explored.

We see him in the hospital receiving meds, which he promptly spits out. Cliche? Yes, but in an interview at Vulture with Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman he says, “Yeah, that’s because it happens a lot. Yes, we have seen that in hundreds of movies. But that happens all the time on inpatient units.”

Next we see him rejecting his pills once he’s home with his parents, which is followed by two outbursts and a visit from the cops. After which we see him begin taking his medicine and things begin to calm down and his relationship with Tiffany begins to blossom.

Then comes the Eagles game and even while he has shown signs of improving he can’t help but get involved in the fight. The difference here, however, is he isn’t hallucinating as he describes earlier in the film. He is having a natural, thought out reaction to what is taking place and going to the defense of those he cares for. In short, the fight can actually be seen as an improvement on some level.

The reactions to this movie have been strange, as strange as the Weinstein’s continued unwillingness to bring it to more theaters. I can only hope this week’s Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations will give the brothers reason enough to open it wide, at which time I hope the film will find more life than it has been able to muster in limited release… because it’s excellent.


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