The Silver Linings Playbook
Ever since it was announced that David O’Russell, a rare and unusual auteur of whom I am a fan, would be adapting The Silver Linings Playbook I have been eyeing it off in bookstores everywhere, dissuaded from buying it by the seemingly disparate synopsis that adorned its back cover. The book purports to tell a story in which the main character thinks that his life is a movie filmed by god and therefore that everything will work out well for him, because movies always have happy endings. The trailer for the movie though suggested none of that, showing instead a lot of jogging, dancing, football and other physical activities occurring on a normal seeming physical plane.
Though it would have come as no real surprise to see the Silver Linings script stick to those high-concept roots (O’Russell did, after all, make I Heart Huckabees) it instead sheds them completely, favoring a fully down-to-earth approach to its tale of the mentally ill (there isn’t even a single wink suggesting O’Russell is god); one that makes their damages and delusions all the subtler and scarier to see. Given this fact and the pessimistic nature of the industry these days it makes sense that the character’s faith in happy endings has also been dropped but that doesn’t mean that this the result is a demanding or depressing film. The lead character’s optimism is also given a subtler form and it drives the film into striving for the positive without sacrificing anything to the saccharine ( though some more cynical sorts may differ on this front) and the result is one of the strangest, but most effecting rom-com’s of recent years.
Though a lot of people may be put off at the mere mention of mental illness (and don’t find much comfort in the idea of cinematic optimism) there is a sweetened capsule here to help them swallow that bitter pill and that Silver Lining is that the two crazy characters are played by two of the most attractive – physically and magnetically – actors around; and the supports are no slouches either. Though they all have their share of detractors in serious film circles (thanks to the bad blockbusters that they have made) the cast is pretty perfect; there is a huge list of alternate, almost casts available to peruse online – including the likes of Marky Mark, Zooey Deshanel, Vince Vaughn and Sarah Silverman – and to my mind not one of them could have done any better.
It seems a bit trite to come out a few days after a film sweeps the four acting categories in the Academy Award nominations, for the first time since Reds, and say that it has some good performances in it; any compliment I give will pale in comparison to that ceremony. On the upside though it does make my job easy, instead of having to think of something clever I can simply say, “Those nods are deserved,” and my point is made precisely. Though it was a rather controversial one, coming as it did in the place of either Affleck or Bigelow, the choice to put O’Russel’s name in the Best Director hat was also a valid one. The film has a frenzied and frenetic style to it – one that mirrors what it must be like in the mind of these people – that only he could have brought.
What most interested me in the film though was that, despite what the trailers and book synopsis suggest, there are actually more than two mentally ill characters contained within it. Only two are diagnosed and prescribed as having psychotic issues but if you look closely every person in the film’s world has one. In fact, I would say that we all of us have a complex or a combination of them, even the ‘normal’ people among us, some are just more accepted than others. De Niro’s patriarch is a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, he is obsessed with them to a dangerous extent but because it’s football that’s seen as fine: sports addiction trumps drug addiction, superstition is preferred over schizophrenia and cracking under the stress of real life – of work, of marriage, of masculinity – is fine, so long as society thinks that you are otherwise ‘normal’. The treatment of football in the film is interesting because it is vilified throughout and then redeemed at the last minute; though they can be dangerous Sundays are shown to have their own silver lining, just as all of the character’s issues are.
It’s the other sport that the film twists into that has caused most people to pause; threads of a romantic-comedy are one thing but digressing into a dance movie is apparently another altogether. O’Rusell was seemingly ready for this reaction and thus, an hour before anyone busts a single move, he has Pat say this while preaching about Farewell To Arms: “And they dance, they both like to dance with each other and there are scenes of them dancing, which were boring, but I liked it because they were happy!” Again my job mostly done for me. Honestly I thought that the film was becoming a little to repetitive with its strict suburban setting and so this shift towards even the formulaic was actually a nice change; that it culminates nicely in the climax is only an added bonus. Their dance is nicely bi-polar, befitting of the characters, and the way that O’Russel shoots it; forgoing the stepped back, realistic approach he used in The Fighter’s bouts to instead focus on their eyes and those of the audience, because ” that’s emotion” as Jennifer Laurence says, isn’t quite spectacular but it sells it.
The one award nomination which Silver Linings received that I may have to naysay if it wins (besides Weaver’s, which I will forgive on account of soft opposition and local loyalties) is that of Best Picture. Playbook is certainly a good character piece, it has a simple but traditionally strong script and a nice, vivacious directorial style but it is at its core more entertainment than art (separating, for a second, the artistry required in good entertainment from the base term). It has no higher aspiration than to take us on a waltz through the world of its characters, to move us but not to make us think twice about its topic (though we may still) and this is certainly an admirable act and maybe one that should be rewarded but with gold coins and not gold statuettes. See this movie with the expectations of entertainment and you will likely love it (and chastise me for being hoighty-toighty) but see it with the expectations of a Best-Picture nominee and you’ll unfortunately agree with me; as the film tells us, happiness is all about what attitude you take.