David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook received near universal praise; the all-knowing Tomatometer gave it a whopping 96%, and the now late Roger Ebert said the film was “so good, it could almost be a terrific old classic.” It was nominated for eight Oscars, and Jennifer Lawrence even got to take home the little shiny man for Best Actress. Everyone loved this movie.
I saw it last night. The local art house was chalked full with the Thursday night crowd – mostly 55 and ups. They loved it. They laughed on queue. They even awwed on queue. Some of them clapped at the end.
I was shuddering, and had been doing so throughout.
I couldn’t help but compare the anxiousness Silver Linings bred in me to the anxiousness people feel when watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love – the anxiousness that so infamously drove our benevolent host, Adelaide, to pop a Xanax and view the film in 15 minute increments. When a movie has that kind of effect on its viewer, it’s doing something right. But I walked out of Silver Linings feeling like I’d been played. I absolutely hated it, and that’s not something I throw around lightly. How could I react so negatively to something that 96% of the movie-going public enjoyed? Am I that much of a contrarian?
I don’t think so. Contrarians are sad and lonely, and probably listen to Metallica ironically. My gripe was not with the unease that was created on screen; I didn’t walk away feeling violated by the content of the film. I did, however, walk away feeling violated by the haphazard way in which the unease was presented.
A little backstory: Silver Linings Playbook is about mental illness. Or at least that’s how it starts. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, our severely bi-polar protagonist, who has been staying in a mental health facility. Pat went through a breakdown after walking in on his wife taking a shower with a fellow teacher. He is prone to delusions and fits of rage. It’s serious stuff. His father, played by Robert DeNiro, also shows signs of being bi-polar and exhibits a few chronic obsessive compulsive tics. There are two untreated mental illnesses under the same roof, and little is being done about either.
In one scene, Pat gets into a physical dispute with his parents, which leaves his mother, albeit accidentally, elbowed in the face. The edits are quick and the shots are all a bit too close to their subjects for comfort. As a viewer, you feel claustrophobic and trapped – helpless – just as we can presume Pat feels by his disorder. That’s the tone set the film’s first half.
It’s all very realistic, and this is where an important distinction can be drawn between Silver Linings and Punch Drunk Love. When watching Barry in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, there is never any question that he is a caricature of humanity – of the loneliness and isolation we can all feel to be specific – but Silver Linings clearly sets its viewers up for an unflinchingly tough and realistic look at mental illness.
And then, halfway through, everything changes.
Pat meets Tiffany, who has recently become a widow, and displays similarly neurotic behaviors. From this point on, Silver Linings meanders into the territory of Rom-Com. I won’t go into specific plot details, but the strange interactions between the two, fueled by their respective mental conditions, become punch lines. Serious mental problems are passed off as quirks, and as I said, people laughed at them. Seriously, red wine spilled on white khaki slacks laughed.
It’s not as if I have an aversion to films experimenting with genre. On the contrary, Punch Drunk Love plays with elements of noir, the western, and new wave, among others. Where Anderson experiments artistically with genre and explores the nature of humanity, Russell feels around, trying to suss out his film’s identity. Its big finish is even a literal one, as the film is wrapped up with a dance number, miles removed from the violent outbursts of its first half. Russell’s tonal shift from “hard look at mental illness” to “Pat meets Tiffany” exhibits a kind of irresponsibility that is difficult to anticipate.
The film lacks cohesion, and so far, I haven’t been able to come up with any sort of intentionality on David O. Russell’s part.
But, 96% of critics can't be wrong, right?
Catch SAFC's discussion of Punch Drunk Love here.