Silver Linings Playbook: A Grossly Simplistic Depiction of Complicated Subject Matter

Silver Linings Playbook, the new exercise in feel-good cruelty by David O. Russell, might have worked better for me if I’d watched it alone, in a bubble, away from audiences. I would have seen it as a deeply depressing tale of a cripplingly narcissistic man suffering from bipolar disorder and an incomprehensibly needy young woman who desperately longs for him for no apparent reason. We watch him go through stages of mental illness, flanked by a mother in deep denial and a father with deep gambling issues with some OCD sprinkled into the mix, and the more cruelly he behaves towards this woman, the more she chases him—literally, in some scenes. However, I saw it with a full house of moviegoers, who cued me into something I might not have noticed otherwise—this film is supposed to be funny. Now, I’ve worked with children with various syndromes and mental illnesses, and I’m fully aware that illness can lead to some very earnest real-life comedic situations. This film settles, however, for basic romantic comedy. Its female character is embarrassingly one-note, its male character is unforgivable and unconvincing in his ending transition… yet because the state of the modern-day romcom is so low, and the performances in this film are so strong, this has become a critical success to the point of awards season contention. Weird, since I left the theater wanting a bath. The performances for the most part elevate what is otherwise a depressingly misogynistic and overly simplistic sequence of events.

We begin with a school teacher named Pat (Bradley Cooper), who’s just been released from a mental hospital by his mother (Jacki Weaver). You see, Pat suffers from bipolar disorder, and ever since his wife cheating on him caused him to lash out violently, he’s been put away. However, he’s trying to hold a positive outlook on life, and he’s certain he can win back his wife’s affection, despite the fact that she’s moved on in life and wants nothing more to do with a violent bipolar man—the nerve of her! Pat struggles at home to cope with real life, especially in close proximity to his father (Robert DeNiro), a man unhealthily obsessed with football, and his friend Ronnie (John Oritz), a man who is married to a controlling bitch (Julia Stiles). It’s a good thing a normal female character isn’t part of the cast, otherwise these men would have nothing to blame their problems on, huh? Through his friends he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman whose husband recently died, causing her to sink into depression. This depression manifests itself in the most idealistic male fantasy way that depression can: she sleeps with everyone. Pat is intrigued by Tiffany, but he’s obsessed with staying true to his wife, so he rebuffs her advances for a long stretch. Yet when Tiffany tells Pat he can pass a letter from him to his estranged wife in exchange for spending some time with her, he reluctantly agrees… and their chemistry starts to spark.

If you can ignore the film’s set up, you may thoroughly enjoy the second half of the film. It is standard romcom fare, executed quite capably, complete with emotional proclamations in which everyone articulately reveals exactly how they feel to everyone else and a whizbang dance number finale that would get cheers from me in nearly any other film. Instead, I found myself wondering when Cooper’s next flare up would come. You see, at about the halfway mark of the film, Cooper’s character shows no further sign of mental illness, losing the narcissism and complete social retardation, replacing it with “mopey hot guy who needs to be nurtured.” Yet it’s hard to forget how cruel Cooper is to Lawrence from the moment he meets her. I sat in awe as the audience guffawed every time Cooper made Lawrence feel like shit, and as they sighed contently as she worked her hardest to get his attention. Perhaps this is just the male pig in me talking, but on what planet does Jennifer Lawrence have to chase anyone down? Especially this guy who is cruel to her at nearly every turn? The writing seems to indicate that Lawrence’s main disorder is “enjoying sex with multiple partners” (the gall!), but in my mind she seemed to suffer from some sort of masochistic desire to be verbally abused by her intended partner.

Not that Lawrence is the only person who gets laughed at– Cooper’s “zany bipolar episodes” absolutely elicit chortles from a happy audience, as they are written with the maximum amount of snappy one-liners. DeNiro’s replies to his son’s lunacy have the rhythms of a well-written sitcom, which play beautifully with a crowd but certainly would disturb anyone expecting a realistic depiction of bipolar disorder. A student from the nearby school keeps coming over to interview Cooper about his mental illness, usually met by DeNiro doing his best Gleasonesque “WOULD YOU GET OUTTA HERE?” (He may comically shake his fist at the child too. I forget.) This isn’t the first time David O. Russell has found comedy in depressing subject matter: The Fighter, his last effort, featured an impoverished family– one wouldn’t reach to stereotype them as “white trash”–screaming at each other like a Jerry Springer episode for lengthy stretches. There is obviously an audience for laughing at sick and/or poor people, and I won’t act like I didn’t laugh in that film or this one: Russell’s dialogue is quippy and delivered with impeccable timing. However, after leaving the theater, I can’t imagine I’m the only person thinking, “…was I just laughing at sick people and how crazy their sickness is for the last two hours?”

The performances certainly help you forget any potential uneasy subject matter as you watch. Bradley Cooper, who has always struck me as someone who couldn’t quite carry a film himself, proved me wrong here– he treats his role very seriously, and is surprisingly charming for someone so mean, narcissistic, and sick. Jennifer Lawrence continues her hot streak as well, sculpting beautifully the illusion of dimension in her role: she’s likely to be nominated for an Oscar, as women will love how nurturing yet snappy she is, while men will love the idea that they too can act like assholes to someone as hot as her while still remaining their number one object of lust. Robert DeNiro has his most serious role in ten to fifteen years, and he handles it well– it’s wonderful to see what DeNiro can do when given a role that uses his standoffishness as a mask for vulnerability beneath. Usually his characters are merely standoffish and left there. Jacki Weaver has essentially nothing to do but is a nice presence. Chris Tucker is a nice presence too, despite being completely disposable from the film as “the black friend who helps a white guy realize he needs to change his life.” I realize my character descriptions are dripping with sarcasm, but you need to understand what these actors are working with in order to fully appreciate the achievement they’ve accomplished in making this movie as good as it is.

I used to work at a theater camp, and one of the kids there was a young autistic boy named Sam (name changed to protect his identity). Sam struggled to get on stage and perform songs and dances with the other kids—he would usually need a counselor right by his side, and even then, some days that wasn’t enough. One year, Sam’s group was going to sing “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Sam loved The Lion King and started bringing in a Baby Simba stuffed animal he owned. The night of the show, it seemed that Sam would do just fine. However, as the song went towards the chorus, Sam moved to the front and center of the stage. What would he do? Would he jump off? Would he scream? When the song finally hit the chorus, Sam reached behind him… and pulled out his Baby Simba, lifting him in the air like Rafiki does at that moment in the film. The audience roared with laughter and applauded—it was a warm, heartstring-tugging moment. Sam understood what was going on, made a secret plan, and executed it flawlessly, and it made the entire group performance better. Pure magic.— Why am I sharing this story? Because despite being an earnestly funny, heartwarming moment… Sam wasn’t better after that. He continued to struggled with the condition that plagued him. A magical moment doesn’t fix people. Nor does one relationship. Nor does a simple dosage of medicine. People who suffer from illness, disease, or syndrome suffer from it their whole life long. The tone at the end of Silver Lining Playbook depicts a man who will be all better thanks to a magical moment connecting him to a beautiful woman. Not only is his illness wacky and full of humor, it also can be solved by mounting Jennifer Lawrence. I loved much of Russell’s early work, and there’s no denying the skill involved in the execution of this story. Certain scenes and moments in the film are right on the money, which made the shallow and uneasy moments all the more saddening. In fact, most of what bothered me likely won’t bother others—- I can already hear friends and colleagues telling me, “It’s just a romcom, dude! Relax!” As much as I’d like to, I can’t deny how I felt leaving the theater: the lack of depth and wacky tone in the depictions of both female characters and the mentally ill left me legitimately uneasy… and surprised it didn’t leave others feeling the same. I can appreciate the strong performances though: they are the silver lining that surrounds this unsettlingly cruel and misogynistic cloud beneath.

~ by russellhainline on November 22, 2012.

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