dir: David O. Russell
Do you sometimes hear about a film that a whole bunch of people seem to think is the bee’s knees, the duck’s nuts, the greatest thing since the invention of whisky, and you watch it and think nothing more than a big question mark?
Apparently, Silver Linings Playbook was one of the greatest movies of 2012, perhaps of all time. Your humble writer is in no position to confirm or deny, even after having watched it. Maybe I haven’t seen enough movies. Maybe I’ve seen too many. Whatever the cause, I’m obviously lacking something crucial.
My perplexity doesn’t diminish after having written this review, I’m as confused at the beginning as I am at the end. That’s not to say that this film isn’t modestly enjoyable, it’s just that it’s a very flawed film, and a very conventional one as well.
Mental illness is a tricky subject for movies. Invariably, in the same way they get almost everything real wrong, movies get mental illness wrong wrong wrong. The main character here is a violence-prone maniac with bipolar disorder; it’s what they used to call being manic depressive.
When we first see Pat (Bradley Cooper), he’s in a mental health facility. We don’t know why yet, so one of the first things we see to give us an idea of where this character is coming from, is his taking of, and spitting out, of some medication.
He’s a rebel, he’s a joker, he’s a wild card, he’s a dessert topping and a floor cleaner. Not for him the court-mandated taking of medication, no. Rebellion all the way, McMurphy!
We find out that because he’s been doing okay at this facility, they are going to let him out earlier than perhaps he should have been. His desperately concerned mother (Jacki Weaver, Australia’s Own Jacki Weaver) arrives to take him back to Philadelphia.
What distinguishes Philly from anywhere in America for our eyes, those of us who don’t live in the States, will probably never go, and, if we do, probably will never go to Philly? As far as the film is concerned, the only thing that defines the essence of Philadelphia is that they have a football team called the Eagles. Nothing else. Sure, they mention Benjamin Franklin, but other than a goddamn football team, Pennsylvania is a completely blank slate to our eyes. I guess it doesn’t matter either way, but other than acting like it’s Boston with New Jersey Italian Americans wearing Eagles jerseys all the time, it’s hard to get a real feel for the place.
Pat returns to the family home after that stint inside, and is determined to do two things: to not go back inside, and to win his wife back, who has a restraining order out on him. Obviously, what a piece of work is Man, especially this man. It’s hard to separate the character from the ‘illness’, which is something conveniently picked up or abandoned as the story requires. When Pat does something nuts, selfish, violent or idiotic, we’re meant to accept that his very serious illness is the cause. He’ll virtually say, “I wasn’t me, it was the Evil Hand”, giving himself cover in virtually every circumstance, at least as far as he’s concerned, even if that’s not what the courts, a jury of his peers or his sainted parents would accept.
One example, or the first example of his behaviour’s potential for harm is the manner in which he finishes a Hemingway novel and, pissed off with the ending, hurls it through the window, and wakes his parents at 4 in the morning in order to scream out all his angries about the novel and its unhappy ending, because it undermines his sense that he is entitled to a happy ending himself (hence the title).
Now, we can take this scene, and the few that follow, as signposts of how bad his illness is. He can’t see how inconsiderate his behaviour is, how worrying, how frightening, all he can see is his pure need to rant at his parents at that exact time. Is he compelled to do so by his illness, is it his lack of medication-taking that made this happen, or did it exacerbate it?
I don’t know, and neither does the film. It treats his illness so conveniently you’d think it was the filmic equivalent of the bathroom supplies you find at a hotel of perfect utility: soaps and shampoos and such of single serve sustenance, to be discarded without shame or thought as required.
Pat doesn’t really apologise, but all he worries about is losing the chance to keep walking all over his parents, or that word of this episode will get back to his wife Nikki. She can’t know that he’s still an arsehole, because then he won’t be able to convince her that he’s not an arsehole any more.
It’s a delicate balancing act, continuing to act like an arsehole but not wanting to have to pay the bill for being one, it takes a light touch. Even with Pat’s big idea to eventually be able to reconfigure the lives of multiple people to suit himself, through an illusory process of self-improvement, delusion seems to be the core of most of his thinking. People around him express a mixture of cautious support and outright intervention, but he doesn’t care, because he’s got all the answers.
Such a recipe, in a different film, would serve the purpose of teaching the main character, through ups and downs, travails and torments inflicted upon him and the people around him, that he’s wrong about stuff, and that the world isn’t perhaps as he thinks it is, and that he needs to come to terms with stuff, and learn stuff about life and himself etc etc.
This, however, is a romantic comedy more than a drama, so that’s not actually what the film’s purpose seems to be. The cure for such a chap here isn’t, as you might think, therapy and medication. The cure, perhaps, is love.
I know, it’s fucking stomach-churning when you write it up like that, and I am over-simplifying things horribly, simplistically, but I will point out that the flick depends on running, that gorgeous staple of romantic films from When Harry Met Sally to Bridget Jones’ Diary to Love, Actually, which surely was the apotheosis of having someone have to run to tell someone something before they leave on a boat, plane or the Hindenburg.
Oh, the humanity. Pat’s salvation might just be a girl nearly half his age called Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She, too, seems to be suffering from some kind of mental illness, but of course it can all be mellowed out as long as she has the love of a crazy man who accepts her for who she is.
Kinda. Sorta. Her character is, in some ways, even more offensive than his, in the way it was dreamed up by a writer who really seemed like he might have been jerking off as he was typing, and I don’t think he was leafing through a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with the other. She’s suffering from a kind of depression that has somehow transformed her into the town bike, as her guilt over her husband’s death causes her to go on a sexual rampage which means no-one in their suburb of Ridley Park is safe from her advances whenever she feels the slightest bit of upset over anything.
This, too, can be cured with nothing but love, but will the love birds realise the love that will bind them and transform them in time, or will it be too late? Will Pat’s father (Robert De Niro) realise he’s as obsessive-compulsive / bipolar as his son is, and will he bankrupt his family by placing grandiose, outlandish bets, or will the film reward him as well for not seeking medical treatment and therapy for his gambling addiction as well? Will everyone pretty much be okay as long as they stay positive and blame their selfish behaviours on their diagnoses whenever they lapse, and all their problems on someone or something else external to themselves?
Well, what do you think is likely, considering the synopsis I’ve given you? Had I not watched the flick, I would think this review was talking about one of the worst films in human history, and guinea pig history as well, for that matter.
Just to go even further, if I haven’t shown my own obsessive tendencies enough just yet, if ever the film seems like it’s going to go into genuine, credible, dark territory, with scenes that hint at the true extent of the dysfunction at play here between these characters, rest assured that the flick will find ways to minimise the seriousness of what’s happening, so that you don’t get too bummed out by it, and that you don’t mistake this for a serious story about plausible or actual people. The way they play that Led Zeppelin song over Pat’s violent altercation with his parents and the police is insulting to the audience’s intelligence. They should have been playing “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” instead.
Turns out, decent performances of horrible characters can make a flick endurable, if not enjoyable.
Bradley Cooper does really well as this arsehole character. He’s built a career for himself around playing different kinds of arrogant arseholes; the difference here is that he’s somewhat just a delusional one here, not an entitled one like he usually plays. It was hard to want him to succeed at anything, because his intentions are centred around something we don’t want and know isn’t going to happen, (getting back with his frightened wife) but I don’t know if we sympathise with his delusional ass. He’s not a sympathetic character, but characters don’t have to be sympathetic to be viable.
Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t need to do films like this, since the Hunger Games movies will probably make her richer than most people in the US except for ball players, but it’s good that she gets some human work to do. I don’t buy her character for a second, but I believed her rendering of the character, she made her seemed believable at least only when she was doing something other than talking about herself.
The performances are the key, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence do really well together even if everything around them, and much of the stuff they do together seems hellishly contrived from beginning to end. And, as much as I may have liked them, I sure as hell didn’t think this happy ending was really going to be a happy ending for those concerned, because, honestly, they’re all still nuts. For those characters I foresee nothing but drama and pain, but there’s a reason why the credits role at the end of a romantic comedy, so that we can have that point in time when everything was perfect, and we don’t have to think about the likely reality down the track.
If there’s a silver lining to the Silver Linings Playbook, it’s that it’s finished, and I don’t have to think about it anymore.
6 reasons why as someone who’s grown up with mental illness in the family, who’s had friends and girlfriends who’ve struggled with it their whole lives, it’s hard for me to take this kind of shit lightly out of 10
“You have poor social skills. You have a problem.”
- “I have a problem? You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.” – sure, that’s what a crazy person would say – Silver Linings Playbook