This review (with spoilers, be warned!) comes from a friend of Mockingbird, Joseph Williams. Follow more of Joseph’s terrific work over at The Wise Guise.
In David O. Russell’s newest film, Silver Linings Playbook, the psychiatric issues abound: an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, sex addiction. Behind these, though, lie the more everyday varieties of guilt and self-contempt, delusional thinking and mixed-up love, not to mention some classic rom-com dance competition montages thrown in for good measure.
Silver Linings is the latest star-packed, indie-movie-that-could amongst all the blockbusters of awards season and, after riding a wave of film festival success and critical acclaim, the film has slowly expanded into more theaters nationwide. But it’s hard to know where exactly to place this film. It walks a dangerously dark tightrope but leaves viewers with surprising joy. You might say it succeeds in spite and maybe because of the difficult issues it addresses and genres it mixes. You want to call it a romantic comedy or a dark comedy, but it evades those categories: it has some of the best dramatic performances of the year in it, too. Or you’d be tempted to describe it as “feel-good”, but the lows are too low for that (although, I’d argue some of the more hope-giving films, like It’s a Wonderful Life, are so inspiring because they show you the darkness of humanity before redemption is realized). The film is ultimately a clinic in the balancing act of honest depiction. Russell’s direction, and performances from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, make honest work of these raw realities and moments of redemption.
For my money it is one of the best movies of the year because it succeeds where so many fail: there are tons of dramedy scripts out there, trying to combine the life issues with laughs. So many of them fail either because they come off as too try-hard and self-serious, or the opposite happens and it’s too dark, or too silly. Silver Linings Playbook strikes the balance perfectly, and the snappy dialogue between its extreme yet nuanced characters even reveals a number of Gospel-related themes: the receiving and extending of true forgiveness; the humility one finds in the face of real obstacles, and the reality of hope for overcoming shortcomings that doesn’t involve denying them.
Like life itself, Silver Linings Playbook isn’t just tragic or just comic. It is both. There are tears and laughs and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
At its heart, this film is about friendship, family, romance, and coming to terms with our own human frailty with the help of others. It is all about grace, in other words, and its most potent lesson is that, before we can accept grace from others or offer grace ourselves, there has to be some realization of our limited control and need for it ourselves. Far too often, we either justify our shortcomings or let the guilt overwhelm us. But as Playbook masterfully illustrates, taking responsibility can actually serve as a pre-condition for grace.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a late thirty-something who has spent eight months in a mental institution. After a violent explosion that occurs upon finding his wife in the shower with one of his colleagues, it is determined that Pat has been living undiagnosed with bipolar disorder. Trying to better himself physically and mentally, and to get his job and wife back, Pat’s regimen of recovery soon hits some roadblocks, and he realizes cannot get better on his own.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Tiffany, a young woman guilt-ridden by choices that have indirectly led to her husband’s death. Turning to sex, she has been fired for sleeping with everyone in her office.
Friends and family, hoping that these two might find some healing with each other’s help, set up Pat with Tiffany. Tension quickly develops as Pat believes that Tiffany is in need of more help than he. Through uncomfortable humor, Tiffany challenges Pat to face the truth. Here is one particularly potent exchange:
Pat: You’re crazy.
Tiffany: I’m not the one that just got out of that hospital in Baltimore.
Pat: I’m not the big slut! (Tiffany stops running.) I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Tiffany: I was a big slut, but I’m not anymore. There’s always gonna be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that, with all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself, f***er?! Can you forgive? Are you any good at that?
Later, Pat witnesses several men hitting on Tiffany knowing her scandalous reputation. Pat begins to defend her, telling them to back off because she’s trying to get better. In one pivotal scene he blasts a sleazy suitor in front of Tiffany’s parents, Tiffany hiding inside.
Pat: …Sometimes it’s not [okay] because they got a broken wing, and they’re hurt, and they’re an easy target. And in this case, in this particular case, I think that wing is being fixed. And you gotta make sure it gets mended. And you’re getting in the way of that right now, okay? Because she’s sensitive and she’s smart, she’s artistic. This is a great girl and you gotta be respectful of that. Come on. Let me walk you back to your car. You’re a better guy than this. I can see it in your eyes.
As the rest of the raw reality of life sets in throughout the movie on the way to its authentically feel-good finale, there are powerful instances of self-sacrifice, grace and, from that grace, self-realization. Tiffany continues to learn from her past. Pat slowly learns that the idol of his old life is an illusion that is holding him back.
Each character slowly learns how to love the other, and because they are so obviously flawed (and not consciously trying to change each other), there is something genuinely unconditional that happens. By the time the final dance competition sequence ends and our complex characters have fallen in love, we are smiling because we know the whole story, and what it took to get there.
The ultimate silver lining turns out to be grace.