Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
I’m having a tough time during this awards season because, for some unknown reason, I do really not understand why certain movies are getting such love. I can understand where Beasts of the Southern Wild and Lincoln are getting divisive opinions, but generally people seem to love David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, I love Russell as a director. His work includes some of my favorite films (Three Kings, The Fighter, Flirting with Disaster), and even his less-than-great films I find enjoyable (the esoteric I Heart Huckabees). Here, I just found this to be far too pat; a Hollywoodized version of mental illness with two characters that fluctuate between flat-out unlikable and mildly headache inducing. I also noticed a familiar trope that Russell employs here to detrimental effect. The first half of Silver Linings is good, but it quickly devolves into cliché and boredom.
Former teacher Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has been released from a mental hospital after suffering from a mental breakdown after the demise of his marriage. As he struggles to get his life in order, and get his wife back, he enlists the help of a damaged widow (Jennifer Lawrence) to help him.
I’ll get out the positives first so readers don’t feel I dump that in as an afterthought. I enjoyed the movie when it basked in being a dark comedy. The various escape attempts of Pat’s friend Danny (Chris Tucker) from the mental institution came off as a screwball sequence that I wish the film had maintained a bit longer. As an English major, I was busting up over Pat’s diatribe against Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. For a man who is dreaming of romance with his wife again, let’s just ay it’s not the best book to read. Yet, he’s so surprised at how it ends (obviously not knowing much about Hemingway as a person). Later on, Tiffany (Lawrence) recounts the plot of Lord of the Flies to similar hilarity. The books children are taught do shape their beliefs in things, and the movie’s focus on two characters who have received harsh reality checks (that aren’t unlike the ending of those books) speak volumes (pun not intended). I really wish Silver Linings Playbook had focused more on clever wordplay and analysis as opposed to jarring slams of humor, particularly by the end. Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro are comic and tragic, and felt more human than Pat and Tiffany. It’s obvious they’re at a loss about what to do with their son. You can see, especially in Weaver’s performance, there’s guilt and blame. With De Niro, who was snubbed this year, he possibly suffers from a mental illness as well. I don’t think I was supposed to love them more than the main characters.
There are three main issues that ended up ruining my enjoyment of Silver Linings Playbook: 1) The Hollywood version of mental illness 2) The loveable reformed slut 3) It’s everyone else’s fault…no really it is. Let me break these down.
According to David O. Russell, himself, the book of the same name resonated with him due to his son having bipolar disorder and OCD. While I don’t begrudge Russell’s connection to the material, he really seems to trivialize mental illness in this work. For starters, bipolar is a serious disorder and yet Pat disorder is the source of humor. He mentions he has “no filter” (a thinly veiled allusion to Asperger‘s?), and thus he says exactly what he thinks which is funny, but that is what his mental illness is…funny. Second, the movie plays up the fact that “we all have a little mental illness in us.” Pat’s mother is an enabler, Pat’s father has OCD (the connection being that mental disease is inherited?), Tiffany is extremely promiscuous mimicking several mental illnesses, and the list goes on. It’s used to help the audience get down to Pat’s level, but by saying that everyone is a little mentally ill again trivializes Pat’s issue and bipolar at large. By the end, Pat is seemingly cured by falling in love with Tiffany (who is on his level because she’s a lovable slut with shades of the mentally ill, remember). He’s redeemed/saved/cured by love and we get a pat Hollywood ending.
Furthermore, as evidenced by number three on my list, the script only has Pat react to moments where he’s provoked. It almost seems that Pat doesn’t even have a reason to be in a mental institution; others either prod him to the point of response, or he’s in the wrong place, at the wrong time. His response to finding his wife cheating on him does seem a tad extreme (beating his wife’s lover to the brink of death), but than again I know quite a few guys (and girls) who have done the same thing; not to death, thus why I mentioned the extremity, but it isn’t saying that all people who do that are mentally ill, right? Later on, Pat defends his therapist (Anupam Kher) who is being attacked by racists at a football game, and is arrested by the police which causes frustration with his parents and makes him look crazier to his neighbors. Also, the neighbors freak out around him so much I shuddered to think at how they’d respond to a pedophile living on their block. At the film’s conclusion, Pat does talk to his wife which gives him the catharsis to be cured. Um, sorry but characters mention NUMEROUS times that Pat’s wife has a restraining order out against him. Regardless of the circumstances, he’d be arrested for violating a court order! It doesn’t matter if his wife wants to talk to him, the court order stands and anyone who reports him would force the cops to arrest him. Again, none of these situations emphasis Pat’s mental illness, but just have others being the source of all his problems.
This brings me to the last issue I have: David O. Russell and the loveable slut trope. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Tiffany. She’s sassy, spunky, a pain in the ass, but she’s poorly written. On a superficial level, David O. Russell REALLY loves Jennifer Lawrence’s backside as the camera seems to find a reason to focus on it far too much. It actually became uncomfortable as every dance scene has the camera prominently aimed on Lawrence’s ass. As if that doesn’t do enough to objectify her, Tiffany is seen as a loveable whore. It’s revealed that she feels guilty because her husband and her weren’t having sex, so one night he goes out to buy her some lingerie and on the way home he goes to help a motorist with a flat tire, and gets hit by a car. Tiffany tearfully ends the story with “the Victoria Secret box was still sitting in the front seat.” Are the tears welling up yet? So, because Tiffany feels guilty, she goes on a wanton sex binge and sleeps with everyone she meets. Promiscuity is a symptom of several mental illnesses, although the movie doesn’t go on to say Tiffany is mentally ill. In fact, Tiffany is written as the character who understands how duplicitous all the other characters are, and how much they thrive on drama. The problem is the film never fails to remind us that Tiffany is slutty. Sure, Tiffany says she’s aware she’s a slut, and that she accepts that part of herself, but the movie makes a point of having Pat be the one to tell her she’s wrong and messed up. He’s the one forced to defend her, and at the end his love saves her from a life of whoring. Had Tiffany simply not been frigid, she wouldn’t be messed up. Her entire mental psyche is bound up in sex and yet the film objectifies her! This is a familiar trope in Russell’s work. Look at Amy Adams in The Fighter who mentions having a promiscuous past, and can’t have a relationship with other females because of it. Or Flirting with Disaster, where Tea Leoni’s character is a divorced woman who finds herself trying to cheat with a married man. The problem here is that Lawrence’s character’s confidence and acceptance feels false at the end, because she needs it reinforced by Pat.
Silver Linings Playbook started out good, but devolved into a stereotypical Hollywood melodrama about the perils of mental illness that never felt perilous. It also never felt like a true comedy. Lawrence, De Niro, and Weaver are good, but the script feels too tidy and afraid of making the characters too real.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.