Upon listening to episode 214 of the /Filmcast, essential listening for a film buff such as myself, there was talk of Oscar nominations and the various snubs and surprises. One of the surprises, along with the wonderful Beasts of the Southern Wild, was the latest David O. Russell film Silver Linings Playbook grabbing 8 nominations. Host David Chen gave an argument about why Silver Linings Playbook seemed out of place on this list compared to other nominees and also why there perhaps could have been more deserving works that were overlooked in some of the more prominent Oscar categories:
“We have Life of Pi, Lincoln, Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild who all feel more weighty and significant than Silver Linings Playbook…. it doesn’t deal with slavery or life and death….”
These statements from Dave led me to ponder our expectations of the Academy awards and whether our preconceived notions about what does and doesn’t deserve recognition is based on the quality of the films themselves or as Dave seems to suggest, the themes the films themselves represent and how they are presented. In the eyes of this scribe, Silver Linings Playbook is an extremely important movie that presents an unflinching, honest and compelling portrait of mental illness that we do not see enough in mainstream entertainment. It just does so by wrapping it in a more gentle, easy to digest form.
Breaking this film down on as shallow a level as possible, Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy with many of the standard tropes one associates with that genre. It follows the structure of quirky characters finding each other and dealing with conflict and finding redemptive moments that bring them closer together. It might be difficult for some not to see this as comparably light fare placed next to four favorite directors all with very dramatic stories made more compelling than them being based on real events with real historic significance (Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and to a far lesser extent Django Unchained). Or a high-profile adaptation of a beloved musical that is literally titled the French for THE MISERABLE, and Amour from director Michael Haneke that by all accounts is a heartbreaking and compelling piece of quiet and contemplative cinema unlike anything else released all year. Excuse me while I take a deep breath.
Aaaaaand out. Silver Linings Playbook perhaps suffers from issues of perception due to the fact that it comes in what appears to be a very conventional packaging. Maybe if this had been a documentary following a man through the same sort of situations this would be taken far more seriously? In this scribe’s opinion however though Silver Linings Playbook plays around with many of the standard rom-com tropes, it is a startlingly honest and accurate portrayal of people dealing with mental illness. Bradley Cooper mesmerizes as Pat, a man who lived much of his life with Bipolar Disorder. He only receives diagnosis and treatment for his illness under court order after he beats his wife’s lover to a pulp. As with many in his situation, he did not himself understand what was wrong with him and for years was dogged with mood swings and violent outbursts that pushed his loved ones away. He does not find any of that help until he hits rock bottom and was placed in a secure facility as part of his sentence. He returns home the black sheep of his family, that he probably always was due to his illness, to a well-meaning but largely helpless mother, a more successful older sibling who has always overshadowed him, and a father himself racked with OCD and anger management issues of his own. He wants to get himself physically, mentally and spiritually healthy so he might reconcile with his wife who has a restraining order against him. He meets Tiffany, played perfectly by Jennifer Lawrence, who is struggling with mental health issues of her own that are catalyzed by her husband’s death.
They have moments of extreme manic states, becoming impulsive, saying things out of turn without meaning to. These are things that we are comfortably familiar with being “quirks” that result in comedy and big laughs. The reason we view these this way is partly because they ARE in fact funny at times but also because when you break your leg you go to the hospital but when you are mentally ill so many hide it or trivialize it. Many hide it because they don’t understand it themselves, losing friends or loved ones in the process when they can’t keep things in check and don’t know how to verbalize what is happening in their heads. Many also self-medicate to cope with these undiagnosed issues, be that alcohol and substance abuse or other similarly anti-social behaviors. There are scenes in Silver Linings Playbook that were difficult for me to watch, seeing far too much of Pat in some of my own actions and feelings. Pat represents the millions of us that are suffering from mental illnesses and fewer things are more powerful to those suffering that they are shown that they are not alone. It is a revelation to us when we discover that other people have felt the same loneliness, the same sadness and desperation that we have felt. Silver Linings Playbook may not feature the freeing of an enslaved people, a military operation years in the making or a young man sharing a boat with a dangerous wild animal. What it does do is give us a look that countless numbers of people deal with on a daily basis and provides us with characters that are warm, funny and sympathetic that we root for. Maybe we’re also given a chance to root for ourselves a little bit.
Silver Linings Playbook does not boast historically significant themes nor a somber, serious tone. However this does not take away from some wonderful writing, superb performances from the entire cast, and a chance to live the life of someone who is dealing with something real, craving understanding from the people he loves and mirroring the plights of many in today’s society. Many more people than you may think. At the very least Pat discovers that he is not alone and in doing so gives all of us that same hope.
POST OSCARS EDIT: The movie won “Best Supporting Actress” for Jennifer Lawrence, richly deserved. Robert De Niro was totally robbed.