Monday, February 4, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Pat has issues. Diagnosed as bi-polar after a violent incident and having spent eight months in a mental institution, he moves back in with his parents. Back in his childhood home, his existence comes down to one purpose: win back Nikki, his estranged wife (and the primer for the violent incident). She has a restraining order against him, he still struggles with emotional outbursts, and his social skills are seriously lacking. But he's got a way to beat all the issues: think positively. Look at the silver lining. Things are looking up.

Here's my question: how does a person like Pat both think positively and think realistically? Pat (Bradley Cooper) genuinely believes that he can win back his wife if he gets in shape, reads a bunch of books, and corrects any of the minor misgivings she voiced to him eight months previously. His parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) are concerned for their son's well-being, and continually try to reason with him that "it's over" with Nikki. But Pat doesn't hear it. He's going to WIN. HER. BACK. He's a bit obsessive that way.

So is his father, Pat Sr. The man has dual consuming passions for the Philadelphia Eagles and gambling. Both passions are fueled each Sunday as Pat Sr. rubs lucky trinkets, arranges the remote controls in the just the right fashion for game-watching, and tries to get Pat Jr. to "help" the Eagles by being present in front of the TV. Pat Sr. can't go to the live games any more due to a few violent incidents with other fans.

Obsession, violence, and a disconnect from reality. Like father, like son.

When Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) enters the picture, Pat's obsession with Nikki wavers in moments, but seems to continue unabated. Tiffany is a recent widow grieving the loss of her husband. She and Pat find a strange camaraderie in their mutual suffering and loss, though Pat is quick to (wrongfully) point out that Tiffany is far more messed up than he. I'm not sure what Tiffany sees in Pat--maybe she feels a connection to someone else who was wounded by love--but she begins to pursue him, helping him cope with his loss and entering into the messiness that comes with bi-polar tendencies and Philadelphia Eagles fans.

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy that embraces its bi-polar themes by walking a thin tightrope between intense family drama and laugh-out-loud wit. Filmmaker David O. Russell has drawn out some of the strongest performances of the year in this film, with Bradley Cooper giving the best performance of his career, De Niro finally showing off that he's still one of the greatest living actors around, and Jennifer Lawrence somehow topping both of them with her feisty and affecting portrayal as Tiffany. Like other films who have tackled weighty issues with a mixture of comedy and drama (50/50, Lars and the Real Girl), SLP blends raw emotion with humour. The primary example is a moment where Tiffany bursts into a family argument after Pat and his friends have been kicked out of an Eagles game for getting into a fight, culminating in a verbal showdown between Tiffany and Pat Sr. over Pat Jr.

I liked Silver Linings Playbook. A lot, actually. But not as much as I wanted to.

Here's what I mean: the film sets up the scenario with the two leads, Pat and Tiffany, as the romantic interests. By the climactic final scenes, you want Pat and Tiffany so badly to be together. They've been wounded, they have helped each other grow stronger, they appear to be falling in love, they have great chemistry, etc. etc. etc. But Pat is still a married man. Initially, I didn't think so. Right after exiting the theatre, my reading was: Pat and Nikki are no longer married. Nikki has wholly moved on from the marriage, but Pat has a fantasy idea that he can save what is already gone. Both Tiffany and Pat are no longer married; the former a widow, the latter a divorcee with a restraining order from his ex-wife. So, a romance between the two was "okay," in a sense. At least that's how I viewed it.

But few days later--and after reading this excellent commentary on romantic portrayals in our culture's films--I began to struggle with that first interpretation. What if Pat was still married to Nikki? Could they truly work things out? Should they? As both Nikki and Tiffany are right in front of him, Pat has a choice to make. De Niro's character utters a strong line in the climax, telling Pat that it would be a "sin" to not go after Tiffany, the girl who truly loves him. But wouldn't it also be a "sin" to walk away from one's spouse, particularly if they are still legally and covenantally married?

What is the the better romance story? The one where it is a "sin" to walk away from the failed marriage, or the one where two people choose to stay? Maybe this is why Take Shelter is such a beautiful and powerful film for me--in the midst of potential mental illness and a self-destructive pattern, the wife turns to her wounded husband and slips her hand into his. They face their fears and wounds together.

Speaking of awesome films that blur the lines between Divine revelation and mental disability: the Wikipedia entry for the The Silver Linings Playbook novel offers this interesting plot point:
Pat believes he has only been away a few months, soon realizes it has been years, and struggles to piece together his lost memories. He has a theory that life is a film created by God and that its "silver lining" will be his successful reunion with his wife Nikki.
Wouldn't that have been an interesting theological twist. Probably wouldn't have been a comedy.

The book of Ephesians speaks about Christ washing his stained and broken bride, the church, purifying her and healing her and embracing her as his own. That's a silver lining. That's the optimistic and hope-filled result of commitment and fidelity. That's the kind of romance I want to pursue.

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