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SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” – Adaptation. (2002)

The piece of narrative advice given above by a fictional surrogate of real life screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. distills much of the meta-anxiety facing Charlie Kaufman in his script crisis.  Many difficult themes and unique approaches can be explored and adopted when making a movie, but once all the choices, agonized over for months or years, have been finalized, there is still a product to sell.  Audience’s can and do endure an awful lot at the movies, often with the assumption that their patience and loyalty will be rewarded with a strong note to leave on, something that will remain in their minds on the drive home or to discuss at dinner.  Without going into overly spoilerific desciption, I will say at the outset here that David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel adheres very much, and in welcoming fashion, to Mr. McKee’s directive.

Set a few years ago in a lower-middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood, Silver Linings Playbook opens on Bradley Cooper’s Pat, a man who at the moment lives in a rehabilitation center for mentally afflicted individuals.  After spending a few minutes in this world, Pat and the audience are taken home courtesy of his mother, Jacki Weaver, retrieving her son just as soon as the courts will allow.  The tension between them is noticeable immediately, Weaver doing her best to project the proper motherly authority Pat’s rescuer should possess, though acutely aware of and almost immediately hurt by her son’s easily excitable anger.  Shortly after, Pat is reintroduced to his father, an immensely enjoyable Robert De Niro.  While Mr. De Niro has appeared almost aloof in the last several years, that degree of lightly bemused incredulity which quickly gives way to bursts of anger is perfect here, and the audience can immediately appreciate how someone like Cooper might descend from a father like De Niro.

The reason for all this cautious set-up (rehabilitation center, uneasy reunion with family, enthusiasm to reclaim his life) is quickly explained to the audience as Cooper attends a therapy session.  After being deliberately provoked in the waiting room by an auditory cue, Cooper, through indirect exposition, recaps that upon returning home and finding his wife in the shower with another teacher at their high school (while their wedding song, the auditory cue “My Cheri Amour”, plays, no less) Cooper’s rage consumes him and he beats the man brutally, leading him to psychiatric analysis and rehabilitation via plea bargaining.

Cooper’s initial agenda is to reclaim his wife, who now owns a restraining order against him, by reading through her high school English syllabus and getting himself into better shape overall (a continuing theme is people being impressed by the amount of weight Cooper seems to have shed).  Since the plan itself is rather skeletal, and his family and friends would prefer to see him socialize, he winds up attending a dinner between his old friend, his friend’s wife and her younger, recently widowed sister, played by Jennifer Lawrence.  As evidenced earlier, needing little time to say the wrong thing Cooper mentions early and often that Lawrence’s husband is dead.  While such bluntness might offend an average person, Lawrence proves to be similarly off-center and the two quickly bond while discussing the various effects their respective litany’s of prescription drugs can cause.  An interesting point both raise in this dialogue is the concern over how certain drugs made them “cloudy”, “not sharp” or some variation of hazy.  A contention the movie implicitly makes is that some people (at least the principles) with mental illness are not actually “sick” in the sense of requiring medication, and that by dulling or numbing the mere capacity to get worked up or worse, the rest of the person is being numbed as well.  It’s a difficult argument to make, since there exist mental issues far worse than what afflictions Cooper and Lawrence have which surely are unmanageable without some prescription aid.  For a movie, and these characters, in particular, where the illnesses are mostly relegated to huffing and puffing interspersed with the occasional fist, the suggestion that prescription aid isn’t the answer is not completely ridiculous nor insulting, but it’s still an important distinction to make.

The cure for these folks then, if not medicine, is people.  More specifically: one another.  Both protagonists have managed to alienate themselves pretty thoroughly from their families and initially each other.  Cooper is hesitant to let any other woman interfere with the quest for his wife, especially one who has been recently fired for almost unprecedented promiscuity.  Lawrence, on the other hand, sees a fellow soul adrift, one whose penchant for brutal honesty and emotional hangups mirror her own, though she takes umbrage with the notion that Cooper thinks he is more sane than she, and the audience has to agree with her.  After some brief, literal run-ins in their neighborhood, and because movies have to chug forward, Lawrence presents Cooper with an opportunity for him to speak to his wife in a letter she can hand deliver, though her courier service comes with a price: he must assist her in a dance contest she inexplicably signed up for.  Some posturing and bellyaching ensues, but the agreement is reached.

The magic of montage takes over, and we’re treated to instances of awkward fumbling, some minor progression, eventually arriving at a passable level of efficiency on the eve of the contest.  Since this is where the movie is headed, an obstacle needs to be presented, and it is here in the form of the Philadelphia Eagles.  In a family mad about the Eagles (De Niro’s recently unemployed patriarch has taken to bookkeeping as a source of income and pleads with his son to watch the games with him for good luck, Weaver enables the ritualistic bonding with homemade cakes and sweets, Cooper’s brother drops by and later accompanies Cooper to a game which tests his stability…), the greatest narrative issue that arises is that since Cooper apparently brings good luck to the Eagles, his sacrificing family time for Lawrence is dangerous to their mojo.  In what is, up to that point, the movie’s best sequence, Lawrence confronts all the main participants in defense of her practice sessions and responds to De Niro’s disapproval with a thorough and thoroughly entertaining rant detailing the specific rendezvous’ she and Cooper have had in the last month or so and how in each circumstance this has benefited the eagles.

I say “up to that point” because what has to happen as the finale of a movie where a couple practice a dance routine does, obviously, happen.  Sure, there are side situations which add a bit of tension, but mostly the audience is given over to a spectacle of watching two unstable people perform a dance we’ve in no way been led to believe they can adequately perform with pumped up emotional (and financial) stakes.  And not that during the course of the movie you forget you’re watching beautiful movie stars, but even when what up until then had been a relatively restrained character study transforms into a full-on Hollywood crowd-pleaser, it doesn’t make the moment any less unapologetic and euphoric. 

Throughout the movie Cooper champions a few different slogans.  “Excelsior!”, which has a great payoff down the line, serves as a carpe diem style affirmation for situations.  The other, more prominent outlook Cooper adopts is, as evidenced in the title, the idea that situations have silver linings which one needs to constantly work to see and appreciate.  “Wow them in the end, and you got a hit.  You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”  Sounds a lot like a Silver Lining to me.

Note: The handling of mental illness, especially when the narrative evolves into such a blatant happy ending, could be viewed as insensitive.  If these people were just poorly adjusted to the real world, the audience would likely despise them.  Since they have genuine mental afflictions, however, erratic behavior is tolerated and an overall higher level of patience for their antics is adopted, which allows more tension and drama to be injected into the story.  I personally did not see a problem with the treatment of mental illness, though each person can make up their own mind if the device is misused. 

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