A Simple Story About Two Fucked Up People
David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook may very well be the Feel Good Movie of the Year even if we ultimately end up feeling good by accepting our imperfections and embracing how dysfunctional we are as people. Playing on classic Hollywood screwball comedies (Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby), dysfunctional family dramas (Frank Capra’sYou Can’t Take It With You), and musical romances (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain), Silver Linings Playbook molds traditional Hollywood genres into a 21st century depression-era romantic comedy about overcoming depression. Though firmly set in the economic anxieties of today and the depression that saturates it, the movie has nostalgia for a cinematic time of yesterday when “happy endings” came with a dose of reality, when the frailty, tensions and dysfunctions of family and romantic relations provided pathways for “silver lining” endings. Silver linings are most effective when they recognize the dark clouds that surround them. This movie has plenty of dark clouds and a big fat silver lining to go with them.
The film is based on a book which I haven’t read, so I’m not going to compare the movie to the book. It’s a very simple story about two fucked-up people – Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who meet, go through a lot of trials and pitfalls, fall in love, and live happily ever after. They fight, they dance, they rant, and they rave. They have selfish motives and difficult pasts. They have been diagnosed with psychotic disorders and are attempting to move past them.
Pat has anger issues. When he discovered his wife Nikki was cheating on him, he beat his wife’s boyfriend nearly to death with a shower head and ended up in a mental institution. We meet him when he is released to his mom and goes off his meds. When we meet Tiffany, she is an emotional basket case because her husband was killed while buying her Victoria’s Secret lingerie so they could revive their sex life. She exercised her trauma by fucking everyone in her office and getting fired. She has also stopped taking her meds.
Pat and Tiffany meet at a dinner party at Tiffany’s uptight sister Veronica’s house in one of the many uproariously funny yet uncomfortably real scenes in the movie. Besides being married to Pat’s best friend Ronnie, Veronica is wedded to order through material acquisition and manners. (Look! An iPod port in every room of the house!). Tiffany, on the other hand, is an emotional anarchist who says what she feels when she feels it such as announcing during the dinner, “I’m tired and want to go home.” Veronica argues, “But we haven’t even finished the salad!” (How dare Tiffany disrupt the order of the formal dinner?!) But Tiffany couldn’t give a shit about Veronica’s materialism and manners. Fuck the salad! Fuck the order of the dinner party! She just wants to dance! The scene is a classic “dysfunctional family dinner.” Veronica (Julia Stiles) makes faces of displeasure, discomfort and ultimately dismay. Tiffany rants about how Veronica likes Tiffany to be crazy so Veronica can feel superior. Pat stands by and watches with amusement. He’s not unfamiliar with the dysfunctional family.
Before Tiffany bails on Veronica’s perfectly planned dinner, she and Pat bond over their mutual “otherness.” They have both been labeled “crazy” and “psychotic.” They share stories about meds they once took (Lithium, Seroquel, Xanax, Klonopin, etc.) and that they no longer are taking because the meds “take the life right out of your eyes.” They refuse to have their emotions snuffed by pharmaceuticals, and Tiffany and Pat embark on a number of tremendously entertaining exchanges which are sometimes tense and uncomfortable, sometimes hilarious and romantic, and mostly unpredictable just like real humans.
Despite their “mental illness” and their tendency towards angry and/or depressive outbursts, both Pat and Tiffany believe in silver linings. With their shared belief and resistance to be medicalized by the mental health system and the pharmaceutical companies that support it, love wins in the end, and the silver lining prevails. This may seem trite and all too easy, but it’s not because nothing in the movie is easy. Everyone in the movie is flawed and comes with baggage. Dysfunctional families and relations are just an extension of the dysfunctional society we live in. We have to carve out little islands of utopia within the dysfunction, and that’s what people do in this movie.
In between Pat and Tiffany’s ups and downs, we meet their friends and families, learn a lot about the Philadelphia Eagles and most importantly understand that everyone is fucked-up on some level and that meds are not the answer. If we just learn to embrace our flaws and accept our imperfections on their own terms instead of swallowing pills to try to cure what we are, we’d be a lot happier. We’d be unmedicated, mostly happy fucked-up people instead of medicated plastic smiling zombies. We don’t need meds. We just need love. I like that message!
The movie is so effective and so humanly real that I watched it twice in two days. I watched it the second time on the day I had to put my cat to sleep. I realized it was the only thing I could imagine doing in my state of loss because the people in the movie, even with all their dysfunctional tensions and disputes, make me feel comfortable. As I eased into my seat and began watching the story of two fucked-up people who fall in love and their fucked up families and friends and therapists and how being fucked-up is okay and can even have a happy ending, I thought, “I like these people. I like spending time with them. I enjoy their company even if they are all fucked-up nutcases. Who isn’t a nutcase anyway? How can anyone not be a nutcase in this world? It’s okay. We have flaws and be nutcases and love each other anyway.”
This is a totally classic depression-era theme – the old making lemonade from lemons thing. Though the movie has a silver lining, the lining is hanging by a thread because everything and everyone in the movie is so flawed. That thread could unravel at any time. Much of the film is about the everyday “unraveling” of relationships, and how we are continually mending our mistakes and finding ways to stick together. Though the movie has a classic happy ending (which is kind of the point of the whole “silver linings thing”), the tension in the film and the set-ups for disappointments and failures make that ending unpredictable. During many scenes in the movie, the story has the potential to turn tragic, dark and horribly bad, but it doesn’t! Because this is the Silver Linings Playbook! Still, like the movies of the great Depression and post-Depression era filmmaker Frank Capra, the movie has plenty of grit and potential tragedy to ground it in reality, and I had no idea it was going to have a happy ending when I watched it the first time. It easily could have gone either way.
Like in Capra’s films, the people in Silver Linings Playbook are tremendously likeable even when they are off their rocker. I like every character in this movie. Robert De Niro gives an outstanding performance as Pat Senior, a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who has lost his pension and is now making a living being a bookie. With a past of drinking and violence – he’s banned from Eagles games for getting drunk and beating up so many people – De Niro easily could have over played this role. But he doesn’t. He does a great job being a guy who is trying to control his temper and who pours all of his belief and faith into sports. For Pat Senior, sports are not merely a substitute for love but a mechanism for him to express his love.
I grew up with a dad fanatically dedicated to the San Francisco 49ers, and I understood every nuance of De Niro’s character. Maybe his superstitions seem like comic jokes – the way he holds a green handkerchief folded in a perfect square in his left hand and how he has to have the remote controls lined up in a perfect line facing the TV – but in my experience, this kind of behavior is not comic caricature but the details of real everyday people and life. For example, this past Sunday, I knew my dad was watching the 49ers on TV, so I brought him a chocolate football to give his team good Mojos during the game. The Niners were getting their asses beat by the Falcons, but as soon as I gave my dad the football, the Niners scored, and they won the game. The chocolate football is now sitting next to the remote controls next to my dad’s chair. I told my dad, “See! I told you! You know you can’t eat that” . . . and he finished the sentence “until after the Super Bowl.” The whole thing could have been a scene in this movie.
Like De Niro’s Pat Senior, my dad had his history with booze and fighting, but he’s sober now and has mellowed with age. He’s happy to watch his football and have company while doing it. I went over to my dad’s house last night, and the chocolate football was still sitting on the table next to his chair. The football was glowing with Awesome Super Bowl Power working hard to help my dad’s team win. I understand how these things work. My dad worked as an ironworker all his life. Now, he sits in his easy chair with his broken body and has his football to get him through his days. This is all to say that Pat Senior is not a caricature. He is my dad and a zillion other dads who spend their Sundays watching football and lining up the remote controls. In other words, this is a slice of life.
I like all the characters in the movie. I can’t help but be a little fond of Tiffany. I am not unfamiliar with people who have had painful things happen in their life and direct their feelings towards obsessive creative endeavors. For Tiffany, it’s dancing. She is committed to entering a freestyle dancing competition and has converted the garage behind her parents’ house into a dance studio. Then there is the temper issue. Most of the characters in this movie have various anger issues. When Tiffany gets her feelings hurt, she blows a gasket. In one scene, she thinks young Pat is accusing her of being more psychotic and crazy than him. This hurts Tiffany’s feelings. They’re in a diner, and she loses it on him, mocks his words, knocks everything off the table in one violent sweep of her arm, storms out of the restaurant, and flips Pat off through the windows. Sure the scene is funny and outrageous, but it’s also very real. People behave this way. They get their feelings hurt, lose their tempers, smash dishes, and dramatically extend their middle fingers. It doesn’t mean we’re crazy and need medication. It just means we’re human and live in high pressure emotionally challenging times!
Pat at first seems less likeable than Tiffany, but that’s mostly because he tries really hard to swallow down his emotions by believing in false futures and sweating out his feelings by running through the streets wearing a Hefty bag. Pat wants to believe that he can reconcile with his wife Nikki. We feel less sympathetic towards him because we know he is clearly believing in a lie instead of embracing the truth that is right in front of him (his true love and perfect psychotic match – Tiffany). But when watching the movie the second time, I realized that Pat falls head over heels in love with Tiffany at first sight, and he knows it. The silver lining can only come once he recognizes his love for her. In one of the best scenes in the movie, right after Pat meets Tiffany and realizes that he has fallen for her but attempts to resist the calling of his heart, he goes on a Middle of the Night Hunt for his wedding video in an attempt to deny his feelings for Tiffany and hold onto his false dream of reconciliation with Nikki. He wakes up his sleeping parents as he tears the house apart looking for his wedding tape.
This scene is priceless and shows so many of the things I love about this movie. While Pat tears the house apart, we see all the set details that place his family firmly within the working class– his mom’s sewing closet, his dad’s OCD VHS tape collection of Eagles games, the artificial Christmas tree stuffed in the corner, the broken down exercycle, and all that kinds of stuff that clutters most people’s houses who actually live in their houses rather than using them for showcases of class and privilege. The incident with the tape leads to a family blowout where Pat accidentally hits his mom. The two Pats end up on a bed beating on each other. Everyone is screaming and crying with outrage and then apologies. It’s pure insanity and pure reality all at once, just like regular life.
I also adore Pat Senior’s friend and gambling opponent (and Cowboys fan) Randy (played to absolute perfection by some smalltime actor Paul Herman). Slightly slimy and despicable, but ultimately sincere and loyal, Randy is always at the sidelines, eating nuts from the ever-present nut and candy dish. He watches the family squabbles as if he’s watching a football game. Let me tell you something. I know Randy too. He hung out at my grandfather’s house. His name was Uncle Roy though I don’t think he was really my uncle. There’s always one of these guys hanging around Italian American houses. (Pat’s family is Italian, and so is mine.) Randy, like the other characters in the movie, has the potential of being a traitor and pulling the economic footing out from under Pat’s family. But in the end, he makes compromises so everyone comes out on top or at least even. Every character in this movie is selfish, yet everyone in this movie also gives of themselves. Because that’s how people are.
I also must mention Pat’s friends Danny (Chris Tucker) and Ronnie (John Ortiz). Danny is hilarious as a hair-obsessed OCD ex speed freak with anger management issues. He shows up and fits right in wherever he goes – at Pat’s house, in Tiffany’s garage. He’s crazy and whacky, but so is everyone else, so they all get along.
Ronnie is Pat’s best friend who is married to the very uptight Veronica. Ronnie’s character sets us within the present day economic depression. Sure, he’s living high to meet Veronica’s material greed, but Ronnie’s economic success is a result of gambling on other people’s economic failures. He buys failed businesses and resells them for a profit. While Ronnie makes a living gambling on economic failures, Pat Senior, who lost his pension, makes a living gambling on football. Life today is all a gamble, and because of that tensions run high. Ronnie confesses he feels suffocated by the pressures of his life and that he likes to go in the garage, listen to Metallica and Motorhead and break shit up with his bare fists because it feels good. I like Ronnie! People ARE angry! They ARE fucked-up! It’s okay to smash shit up in your garage! Don’t suppress it!
Even Pat’s therapist Cliff is likable. Originally from India, but now practicing psychiatry in Philadelphia, Cliff is the one who suggests Pat pursue his “friendship” with Tiffany and that Pat needs a plan. Cliff is a totally loveable guy, the antithesis of what you would expect from the cool and detached therapist. Cliff shows up at an Eagles vs. Giants game with his busload of Indian buddies. He sees Pat and says, “I’m so happy to see you. I am no longer your therapist! I am your brother in green!” Pat and his crew (including his brother Jake who I’ll mention in a minute) get in a fight to defend the Indians against racist redneck assholes. Yes, more utopian bonding in tense moments!
At first, the brother Jake seems like a competitive asshole – comparing his list of successes to Pat’s list of failures –, but even he turns out to be likable. Just when we think the brothers are going to go to fist-to-cuffs, they hug each other and say how much they love each other. Jake gives Pat an Eagles jersey which Pat cherishes and wears all the time, including to the aforementioned formal dinner party. As I mentioned, Jake rises to the Indian therapist Cliff’s defense just when we think he’s going to come out with a racial slur, undoing our expectation of his character. To top it off, during the same brawl, Pat defends his brother. The scene is all mixed up with fighting, yelling, cheering and a lot of heated up emotion and suppressed anger that culminate in love and loyalty. According to this movie, that’s how silver linings work. You have to go through the tensions, the fights, and the hard stuff in order to turn the “tragic endings” into “silver linings.”
I also must mention Jackie Weaver’s performance as Pat’s mom Dolores. She’s just terrific. She cringes with anticipated tension, sensing that things can explode at any time but wanting things to be okay. The history of family violence lingers on her face, but so does her undying love for her family. Then in moments, she’ll burst out in rebellion against all the excessive (and OCD driven) male emotion in her household. In one scene, Pat senior has a temper tantrum because an envelope is missing from his office, and Dolores says. “An envelope is missing? Better call the FBI!” Blam! In those few words, Dolores knocks the wind right out of Pat Senior’s obsessive and controlling sails!
There are so many little moments between the characters that are loaded with tension and love, the complexity of family relations and the tensions between doing for ourselves and connecting with others. Nothing is simple. Even Veronica, Tiffany’s sister and the materialistic wife who pussy whips Pat’s friend Ronnie isn’t necessarily despicable. She just has her priorities confused like so many Americans.
Speaking of Veronica and Tiffany, they are from a different class than Pat and his family, and this is shown so well through subtle differences in the interior of the houses, the “manners” of the families, and the exterior neighborhoods. It seems that some of the problems in Pat and his wife Nikki’s relationship were from class differences. Note the interior of Pat’s house with its kitschy metal sculptures and Jesus portraits on the wall versus the East Coast protestant manners of Tiffany and Veronica’s family. (Veronica and Nikki are best friends.) In Pat’s house they eat crabby snacks while they watch the game in the living room. In Veronica’s (and through her, Nikki’s) house they eat formal multi-course meals at the dining table. So, when Tiffany and Pat fall in love, it’s also the joining of these opposing classes (blue collar Catholics meet white collar Protestants).
Let’s get back to the love story. Some have criticized the film for being too “pat” in its ending. But that’s the whole point of the movie! In an early scene in the film, Pat throws a fit at 4 in the morning because he read Earnest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms and is furious that it doesn’t have a happy ending. He says not everything has to be so damn sad and tragic all the time. In a later scene, he’s reading Lord of the Flies. Tiffany gives him a plot synopsis and says that the message is that people basically suck. Yes, people suck. There is no denying that. But, the message in the movie is that, just because people are fucked-up and suck, we don’t always have to have a sad and tragic ending. This movie doesn’t, and that’s its point! We can accept our suckage and make the best of it.
The final scene is very true to the sentiment and message of the film. We go through all this stuff with the characters, but in the end family and romantic love reign. Tiffany and Pat are at a dance competition when Tiffany feels betrayed by Pat and flees the scene. The camera pulls back and shoots Tiffany from overhead as she runs out of the hotel and Pat flies down the stairs after her. It is shot just like a classic Hollywood movie. In fact, the scene references Singin’ In The Rain, a film which is referenced earlier when Pat and Tiffany are practicing a dance number for the competition. Just like Don chases down Kathy when she runs from the theater at the end of Singin’ In The Rain so he can proclaim his love for her, Pat does the same for Tiffany when she flees the dance competition. The scene mirrors a classic movie which is referenced within the movie to give us a happy ending that we deserve sometimes.
The love story really works not because it’s sugar-coated and cookie-cutter Hollywood fodder, but because it is based in reality. There are terribly tense scenes between Tiffany and Pat. Scenes where he calls her a whore, and where she slaps his face. Scenes where she almost gets him arrested, and where he bails on his commitments. Both characters are selfish and fucked-up, but they are both incredibly sincere and romantic. Somehow it works.
Ultimately, I love this movie because it takes reality and says that sometimes things can be okay even in their “un-okayness.” Not everything has to have an unhappy bleak ending about the brutality of life even if human beings are a mess. That’s why Pat heaves Ernest Hemingway out the window, and that’s why the movie ends with a flash forward happy ending that could be right out of a Frank Capra movie. It gives us a kind of nostalgic vision of the near future based on cinematic genres of the past and the details of everyday life.
Silver Linings Playbook delivers a sincerity that we seem to have lost in the movies and in life. Sometimes we need to have hope, especially during brutal economic times, and even if that hope is squished between family squabbles, football, and psychosis. People are flawed, fucked-up, selfish, and confused, but they also have tremendous potential for love and loyalty. We don’t need meds. We just need acceptance of our flaws and belief in the unbelievable like true romantic love and magic football mojos. Like the Hollywood movies of the early 20th century Depression, David O. Russell’s film gives us a place to believe in silver linings even while acknowledging the black clouds in which we find them.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.