You Can’t Be Happy All the Time (Review of Silver Linings Playbook)


This piece is part essay on my love for films that refuse to take the easy way out, and part review of  the film Silver Linings Playbook. The review might even be called more of a reflection, so be forewarned that MAJOR SPOILERS lay ahead.

My love affair with film began in earnest during my high school years. Much like George Orwell as he describes himself in Why I Write, “I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays.” Just as Orwell escaped the horrors of social interaction brought upon by his inherent shyness by retreating into the world of literature, which I certainly did as well and continue to do to this day, I also escaped through film.

Whereas the obligations placed in front of me as a student seemed pointless, unchallenging, and unfulfilling, and whereas socializing with other students seemed utterly draining and devoid of any type of intellectual stimulation, film was the mechanism by which I ventured into new worlds, encountered thought provoking questions about life, visited cities that I simply could not have visited in reality, and came face to face with individuals who could be fascinating, loveable, captivating, reprehensible, or perhaps all those things at once.

I learned to dream on weekends that began with a Friday night visit to Revue Video on the Danforth, a little hole in the wall operation where Luis Bunuel was not just maybe buried somewhere in the “Foreign” section but had his own section, and continued with late night marathons during which my soul was moved by the power of this medium to strike at emotions I didn’t even know I had.

I was vehemently antisocial and in love with film, that was for sure. What reinforced that dynamic was the fact that I fell in love with a particular type of film. Certainly, I loved the classics of Hollywood and more accessible pieces, but I can most vividly recall my first viewings of films that often lacked story, conventional narrative, or unambiguity in its message. Maybe it was because life itself is unambiguous, complex, leaving questions unanswered or prompting a million new ones for every one that it does deign to answer.

The point is that I was quite happy with unhappy or foreboding endings. Klaus Kinski being overrun with monkeys and descending in to raving lunacy in Aguirre, the Wrath of God or the complete descent into chaos in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath are more powerfully etched into my memory than any neatly resolved or reassuring ending I can remember. So too is my urge to revisit Tarkovsky’s The Mirror or Malick’s Days of Heaven, which barely attempt to tell a story but through disjointed pictures, stronger than any yearning for the comforts of clarity and light entertainment that ultimately feel like something I’ve seen too many times before.

cries

Cries and Whispers, a film where supposedly nothing happens. Among my first ventures into the world of Ingmar Bergman. Image via IMDB.

To many around me, friends and family included, it was the mark of sociopathy to want anything more out of a film than cheap laughs or thrills that would be forgotten almost immediately. It was not and is not easy to find those who are not frustrated by ambiguous endings or lack of clear development with whom to share that love of strange and unique cinema.

“Nothing happened!” I can recall my father saying at the end of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers back in the tenth grade. I don’t begrudge him or any others this frustration. A conventional story arc is not a bad thing and is not my pet peeve. That distinction belongs to lazy storytelling that sees conflicts as easily resolved through magical thinking and  happy coincidence – examples are available in any run of the mill romantic comedy. The conventional narrative form is fine. It’s a pity, however, that it so often coincides with content that is lazy and conventional.

***

Silver Linings Playbook (SLP) operates very much on a conventional narrative structure. There is a conflict, a journey, a climax, and an ending, though each of these are a little different than we’re used to seeing.

When we first meet Patrick (Bradley Cooper), he is leaving a mental health care facility, his admission to which was part of a plea bargain after coming home to find his wife in the shower with another man who Patrick proceeds to beat half to death. We learn during one of Patrick’s therapy sessions with Dr. Patal (Anupaum Kher) that he was diagnosed as bipolar prior to the incident.

Upon release, Patrick takes up lodging with his parents. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) is a Philadelphia Eagles obsessive who has taken to bookmaking after losing his job and pension. Pat Sr. hopes that the money he makes from this venture will allow him to open a restaurant. Patrick’s mother (Jacki Weaver) is the calm within the storm and has an unconditional belief in and love for her son.

Patrick is determined to win back Nikki, his unfaithful wife who has taken out a restraining order against him, and is manic in his approach, running constantly in order to get in better shape and reading every book on the syllabus that she has assigned to her high school English class. Pat is convinced that he will triumph over his condition without the aid of medication and entirely by his own will to find the “silver linings” in life.

Patrick has an outburst one night while frantically looking for his wedding video. In the process of panicking, he breaks a window and accidentally hits his mother, after which he is subdued rather violently by his own father. It’s in scenes like this that SLP displays a better and more compassionate understanding of bipolar disorder that we’re used to seeing on film.

As recent tragic events have come to dominate the news cycle, those suffering from mental health issues, bipolar disorder, seem to have become immediately suspect as harmful and potentially sociopathic. The beauty of Bradley Cooper’s performance is the very real portrayal of depression as anything but rational. It is not something that the individual can control, nor is it a condition that leads them to intentionally harm others. Patrick is beholden to his moods and is oblivious to the delusional nature of his quixotic quest to win Nikki back. Pat’s shifts from end to end of the bipolar spectrum are the source of so many moments that are equal parts hilarious and painfully real for anyone who cares about someone with a mood disorder.

Patrick does not attack his mother out of rage nor is he a psychopath without remorse when he hurts others around him. As his father attacks him, simply doing what he can to prevent the chaos from worsening, Patrick, who only a minute ago was frantic and energetic, is suddenly bawling and apologizing to his mother and father. He genuinely feels guilty and that he is the cause of so much suffering simply for who he is, and who he is is hardly consistent. At moments, he is antisocial and at others he is exuberant. He bursts into his parents bedroom to express his grievances with Hemingway’s worldview in the middle of the night, yet when invited to dinner by Ronnie and his wife Veronica (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) he seems to barely function.

Bradley Cooper, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker in SLP. Image from Roger Ebert and links to his review.

Bradley Cooper, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker in SLP. Image from Roger Ebert and links to his review.

It’s at this dinner party that Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany is a widow, the wounds of her husband’s death still fresh. Among Pat’s first words to her are “So how’d Tommy die?” She lambasts him at the dinner table for saying more inappropriate than appropriate things.

In it’s own beautiful and original way, their relationship blossoms. Their “flirting,” throughout which Pat continually reminds her that he is married (again, to a woman with a restraining order against him), is primarily comprised of insults and deconstructions of one another’s flaws. Yet it’s in these insults, one of which ends in a major confrontation with the police, that it becomes clear that they understand one another perhaps better than anyone else. There’s nothing cute about it. These are two people struggling through the greatest emotional turmoil of their lives who have little in common other than that they are broken.

Tiffany convinces Patrick that she will get a letter to his wife if an only if he will serve as her partner in a ballroom dancing competition that she plans to enter. There is still nothing cute here. Patrick is genuinely reluctant and only in it to get that letter to his wife. There are no sudden moments where their eyes lock and angels begin to play harps. Brad sees Tiffany changing, but it seems that he views her as nothing more than physically attractive. He is still hellbent on reconciling with his wife.

***

The way this particular storyline unfolds is too brilliant for me to spoil. There is indeed triumph as our hero invests himself in his collaboration with Tiffany, but it is a triumph so unique an unexpected that I don’t wish to discuss it. The brilliance of director David O. Russell is to take this seemingly overdone trope of the big competition, which usually solves everything, and turn it into something so much more tender, honest, and real.

Yes, Tiffany and Patrick get together and benefit from their participation in the competition. At no point, however, do we feel that either of their battles are over. What they have found in each other is a silver lining, not the magic bullet solution to life’s drama, but a coping mechanism and support system that proves a relentless source of love and reassurance in the face of all hell. We don’t know what will happen to Patrick and Tiffany.

The story arc that takes us through their journey as dance partners is resolved in conjunction with a bet over a Philadelphia Eagles – Dallas Cowboys game (seriously, see the movie), but the viewer is well aware that life is not so simple as to be boiled down to a dance competition.

Ultimately, the reason that SLP works is that it doesn’t deny the complexities or uncertainties that plague reality. There is a happy ending, but not necessarily a happy beginning for our hero’s next chapter. There is a story, though, one that briefly invites us into the world of characters who are real and have real struggles and we see but one episode of their respective journeys, so there’s no complaining that nothing happens in this movie.

Pat’s depression is not cured by Tiffany, but we get the feeling that he might put up a better fight from here on in, that he might experience  more victories than defeats, the former enabled by his silver linings of love from Tiffany, his family, Dr. Patal, and his friend and fellow “case” Danny (a brilliantly subtle Chris Tucker – yes, I used the word subtle in referring to Chris Tucker). This is the reality of depression and SLP does not avoid it by indulging in magical thinking.

As Ronnie tells Patrick as the latter believes he will achieve some sort of permanent positivity, “You can’t be happy all the time!” As Ronnie’s marriage disintegrates, the roles reverse and Patrick provides the realism when he tells his friend that he can’t just let it all fall apart and that he has to work. The film ends on a similar note and I was sincerely happy for Pat that he was going to work.

I like Pat, Tiffany, and Danny. They’re damaged but beautiful souls who display compassion, intelligence, and care for one another and those around them. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them and hope that they’ll be okay.

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