It doesn’t take much to make a story feel fresh. Take the concept of a time-honored romantic tale, then start it in a mental hospital, focusing on a penitent hero with a difficult past, some major mistakes, and scars to show for both. He’s not perfect, but it makes no difference–he’s already got our attention, and he’s desperate to win his wife back.
For our heroine, consider a young woman who grieves over her husband’s untimely death and lives as though she’s still married. She makes some counterproductive decisions, but her own needs are all too clear to see. Maybe she’ll find love again someday.
While some of Silver Linings Playbook’s character and narrative decisions seem unwise or downright neglectful, the story arguably has its heart in the right places, even if it’s taking those intentions and giving them meaning that often proves the toughest. In the end, sometimes a man just wants to see his beloved again. Sometimes that causes its own problems.
The plot thankfully takes its core context seriously.
Playbook’s willingness to respectfully acknowledge the difficulties of navigating emotional and depressive disorders cannot be overlooked or ignored; even though the film’s emphasis on this theme seems to come and go, the story never dehumanizes the characters on account of their mental illnesses. Beneath his significant difficulties in enjoying culturally acceptable interactions, Pat Solatano has a simple and sympathetic goal–to regain the love of his estranged wife Nikki, restraining order or no. Pat’s bedroom is bare, and he shares his live-in facility with many people of diverse genders and ethnic groups. He’s not entirely unusual–he delights in typical Sunday afternoons, and he likes to exercise.
His mother Dolores plucks him out via legal if perhaps imprudent means, and that’s when Chris Tucker of all people shows up. His character Danny, a friend sharing the facility from which Pat (Bradley Cooper) just left, is utterly hilarious; Tucker’s goofy yet sincere acting has come a long way from his unbridled silliness in The Fifth Element and Rush Hour. Danny’s presence isn’t very important to the story but is never dragged out.
As for Pat, he is primarily concerned about his legal separation, which leads to him to read Nikki’s entire English syllabus, get fit, and get his job back in order to remake himself for her approval. He first has to live up to the terms of his plea bargain, wherein he spends eight months in a heavily supervised environment and then is free to leave, so long as he stays out of trouble. While Pat the elder (who didn’t realize his son was being discharged) wants to open a restaurant, Pat the younger wants his house back–which Nikki has sold–but is determined to overcome the negativity of his surroundings while making blunt references to the movie’s title.
Despite Pat’s frustration with the aforementioned negativity, he adds to it by speaking at length about how a book works (in the middle of the night), tossing said item out his window (which is actually really funny to watch), getting into argumentative and literal fights with his parents, and causing problems inside and outside of his therapy sessions. Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour triggers negative memories for Patrick, who becomes extremely stressed while talking about the discovery of one particularly unsavory aspect of his wife’s behavior. A violent scene–not against her–is shown for a short period of time, and the scene’s sensible-in-context nudity is brief.
Pat the elder holds strongly to superstition, including wanting to keep his son around due to a belief that the younger brings good influence, “juju,” to sporting events. This casts doubt on his motivations whenever Patrizio speaks of wanting to spend time with his son. In any case, Pat the younger has resumed exercising, which is commendable even if he does choose to wear garbage bags so he’ll sweat.
After the film introduces Pat’s friend Ronnie and that man’s wife Veronica, Pat is convinced Roni hates him but is nonetheless willing to attend her dinner party; of all things to wear, Pat shows up in a football jersey. It is here that Tiffany, Veronica’s sister and this film’s second lead, is introduced. Her police husband has died in the line of duty, a topic Pat is notably tactless about. Both individuals largely lack social graces; the two begin discussing their numerous medications and their refusal to use them (remember, they’re at a dinner party). Ronnie resents being more or less controlled by his wife, and as with many other characters and situations in the film–remember Danny?–his is an interesting predicament that doesn’t get enough story attention.
Tiffany unceremoniously leaves Veronica’s house, taking Pat with her. The girl is rather forward about dating and sex, even while maintaining feelings for her dead husband. Though this encounter has elements of romance, Pat tries for a kiss and ends up getting slapped. Later, while desperately looking for his wedding video late at night, the very clearly maladjusted Pat has additional flashbacks before arguing with his parents in a tense scene that becomes brutal, waking the whole neighborhood up and prompting another police visit. (Imagine the bickering from The Incredibles but with more F-words and somehow more violence.)
Pat and the uninvited Tiffany begin running together, in the road, and each thinks the other is crazy without a hint of reflection. It’s really funny, but as shown in the previous paragraph, some of the film’s underlying concepts are disturbing to watch, especially when Tiffany calls herself and is called a “slut.” It’s hurtful to see an underlying need of hers, that of honest intimacy and companionship, feel mostly ignored. That need manifests in her sleeping around with her coworkers, she later says, despite Pat’s desire to turn this into a discussion about sexual tastes. More tellingly, she never sleeps with anyone throughout the movie, which makes her reputation seem unjustified regardless of her previous actions. Pat speaks of Nikki being friends with Ron, Veronica, and Tiffany, and his interactions with the latter three ultimately feel like means to an end of reconciling with his wife, as opposed to relating to each on their own terms.
“Walk to me like I’m Nikki.”
Tiffany and Pat go eat at a diner, with both placing (and commenting on) unusual orders. This leads to a creative but unethical discussion of her getting a letter to Nikki through Veronica, bypassing Pat’s restraining order. As Tiffany describes her history, the hurt on the remarkably talented Jennifer Lawrence’s face becomes stark and pronounced. Eventually Tiffany asks Pat to join her for a couples dance competition at a posh hotel, for which they begin training in a private studio. It’s a relaxed, refreshing scene in an enjoyable but often stress-inducing film, even as the two individuals are trying to change each other, and Pat’s ideas about how a relationship should work are at times alarming.
She, meanwhile, slowly opens up and reveals more of her background in one of the film’s most honestly touching gestures. The fan-service shots of Tiffany in her dancing outfit seem reasonable, and she obviously looks very pretty while she teaches Pat about the waltz and several other dances. While this scene boasts plenty of romantic tension, it’s hard to root for these people to become a couple when neither is really “over” their lost love, especially when one of those individuals still has something of a chance of winning her back.
Regarding the header quote, Pat understands its purpose but interprets it literally, telling his partner that she really isn’t Nikki, which has implications on several levels. What’s sad is that Pat rarely if ever actually addresses Nikki’s own well-being or interests, making her out to be some sort of prize for the taking. This makes his arc feel like a deconstruction of the classic get-the-girl story, and it causes me to root for Pat on a philosophical level: I want him and his wife to be reconciled and to honor their wedding vows, but I won’t call him “marriage material” if he isn’t going to respect her choices above his own desires.
Apples and trees
Something that makes Pat equally difficult to root against is that his family honestly doesn’t provide the sort of healthy environment that he needs in order to have a strong chance of rejoining society. In one of the film’s most pointless subplots, Pat the elder decides to wager a huge amount of money, which he needed for his proposed restaurant, for trivial reasons. This is turning to a disaster even on principle, whether Patrizio wins or not. The miniature story adds nothing to the film except to give the audience one more thing to hope for.
Even without screen presence, Nikki receives enough development over a short amount of time to make her into one of the story’s most compelling and relatively mature characters. Pat the younger is caught between conflicting obligations, and it’s frustrating to watch his father display little if any concern. Another husband is told to take steps to restore his marriage, but he and his wife simply don’t get enough writing detail in order to feel important or distinct as characters.
The story thankfully settles on a specific if complex objective–Tiffany and Pat need to achieve a certain score in their dance, and several events out of their control need to fall into place–and to its benefit, the narrative feels like it’s going somewhere. The underdog setup is heavily predictable but adequately established. Where the movie stumbles is in the way the trailing details and their circumstances seem way too convenient for a story with a promising concept, which remains noteworthy even if much of the rest of the plot seems rote.
As Pat and Tiffany slowly learn to behave in outwardly appropriate ways, the movie loses more and more of its distinctive context; that stated, Pat can’t stay in a controlled setting forever, and the same goes for all of us who may be having emotional difficulty or process of recovery. This kind of characterization comes at a price, especially since the heroes don’t appear to have a path to personal or relational maturity, and their respective traumas feel underemphasized as the story nears its heavily unsatisfying end. That being stated, the music and environments are nice, the characters are usually entertaining (particularly Chris Tucker’s, who is given too little to do in a film that has too many people as is), and the acting is absolutely incredible, especially from the leads. No matter how much work the story and pacing could use, the movie simply does too many important things exceedingly well.
Conclusion: Don’t throw away your marriage.
While the movie closes in such a disappointing way that I really can’t even call it “finished,” it has its many moments of success that do plenty to make up for its mistakes. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are outstanding, and the former puts on a show that would be remarkable for an actress far beyond her youth.
The story itself feels as lost as its main characters do–it has an idea of where it wants to go but doesn’t always stick to a reasonable plan for getting there. Too many outcomes appear contrived instead of giving the audience an explanation for how or why various events worked out in the way they did, making a lot of the secondary plot’s suspense ring hollow. Even still, if cheering on believably wounded people touches you, I fully expect that you will be deeply moved by this film, even if the mid-to-late sections don’t feel like they do justice to these themes.
Despite the name, Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t feel committed or complete in its writing, whether as a romance or even as a traditional sports film, and yet pretty much everything surrounding that narrative–sights, sounds (except for dozens of crudities, which sound awkward even from Lawrence), and performances–definitely deserves to be noticed and appreciated. No matter how imperfect the film is, it’s looking up at the stars.
Image credits (property of The Weinstein Company)
Movie poster – source
Pat Solatano (spelling according to movie subtitles) — source
Danny — source
Tiffany — source
Pat and Tiffany in diner — source
Dance practice — source
Competition dancing — source