Hemingway? Mental Illness? Cliche? Another Look at 'Silver Linings Playbook'

A Few Notes on 'Silver Linings Playbook'
Photo: The Weinstein Co.
NOTE: This article is loaded with spoilers for Silver Linings Playbook. If you have not yet seen the movie you may want to wait until you have before reading.

I'm on record loving David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook and even though it's now starting to look like Jennifer Lawrence may lose the Best Actress Oscar race to Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), that doesn't change my opinion on the film overall. Oscars don't really hold that kind of a sway over me. However, after watching the film again last week, a certain scene stuck out to me that didn't necessarily hit me the first time I saw it... most likely because I didn't need the convincing.

Some have been complaining about the film's cliches and formulaic finale. Okay, but if you are to dismiss Silver Linings on these merits then I have to assume there is no level of romantic comedy that entertains or moves you because it's either this or something with Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson, coated in sugar and all manner of sweeteners. By comparison there is no comparison.

This isn't Something Borrowed or Made of Honor. While the story is one we can all piece together, where we find its soul is in its characters and the honest and authentic approach to them and their problems. The film has a basis in reality and while Russell wholeheartedly realizes it's a story familiar enough to all of us, at the same time he cuts the crap and grinds it down to Earth. It's a film about love, family and mental illness and it's romantic, dramatic and, at times, unsettling. It doesn't end on a dark note, but those notes are played throughout and early on Russell gives us a clear sign he wants us to know what to expect.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) first returns home from his mandatory eight months in a state institution and as a part of picking up the pieces he's determined to read all the books on his ex-wife's syllabus, beginning with Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms". He finishes the book and at 4 in the morning and, in a fit of disgust, tosses it through the upstairs window, out onto the lawn before rushing to his parents' room yelling:




I just can't believe Nikki's teaching that book to the kids. I mean the whole time -- let me just break it down for you -- the whole time you're rooting for this
Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with the woman that he loves, Catherine Barkley...



It's four o'clock in the morning, Pat.


...and he does. He does. He survives the war, after getting blown up he survives it, and he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine. But now Catherine's pregnant. Isn't that wonderful? She's pregnant. And they escape up into the mountains and they're gonna be happy, and they're gonna be drinking wine and they dance -- they both like to dance with each other, there's scenes of them dancing, which was boring, but I liked it, because they were happy. You think he ends it there? No! He writes another ending. She dies, Dad! I mean, the world's hard enough as it is, guys. It's fucking hard enough as it is. Can't somebody say, "Hey, let's be positive? Let's have a good ending to the story?"

Obviously what I want to focus on, beyond the foreshadowing of the dancing that is to come, here is the ending of Pat's rant where he says, "[T]he world's hard enough as it is, guys. It's fucking hard enough as it is. Can't somebody say, 'Hey, let's be positive? Let's have a good ending to the story?'" The entirety of this film is right there in a single sound bite and it makes me wonder, just what would the naysayers have to say had Russell ended the film a little differently?

How about this...?

After winning the dance competition, Pat gets back together with his ex-wife, sending Tiffany over the edge, further down the dark hole she was attempting to climb out of? What if, in that same scenario, Pat ends up having another breakdown? What if he ends up beating Nikki a few short months after their reconciliation and has to go back to the hospital? Or worse, what if he kills her, or someone he suspects is looking at her the wrong way or with romantic intent? Would that have been better?

Yes, Silver Linings does have its share of cliches, and I can understand any frustration people may have with it, but that frustration comes as a result of so many films using those cliches for evil. Silver Linings earns its formulaic conclusion through honest portrayals of its characters. The cliches here are more as a result of human nature, and less a result of Hollywood storytelling.

The problem with today's formulaic rom-coms isn't necessarily the ending, it's all the crap that comes before it. We all know the guy and the girl are going to get together 99% of the time, but the journey you take in getting there is what's important.

Then we get to the film's approach to mental illness, another major area of contention for some while discussing the film.

Many have contested Russell's approach to the subject of mental illness saying it "advocates a faith-based view of mental illness" and that "Russell puts the central issue out of play. Pat, after nearly a year of obsessions and hallucinations, simply resolves the problem."

These responses are curious because Pat's bi-polar, manic nature is never abandoned and, in fact, several angles are explored.

We see him in the hospital receiving meds, which he promptly spits out. Cliche? Yes, but in an interview at Vulture with Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman he says, "Yeah, that's because it happens a lot. Yes, we have seen that in hundreds of movies. But that happens all the time on inpatient units."

Next we see him rejecting his pills once he's home with his parents, which is followed by two outbursts and a visit from the cops. After which we see him begin taking his medicine and things begin to calm down and his relationship with Tiffany begins to blossom.

Then comes the Eagles game and even while he has shown signs of improving he can't help but get involved in the fight. The difference here, however, is he isn't hallucinating as he describes earlier in the film. He is having a natural, thought out reaction to what is taking place and going to the defense of those he cares for. In short, the fight can actually be seen as an improvement on some level.

The reactions to this movie have been strange, as strange as the Weinstein's continued unwillingness to bring it to more theaters. I can only hope this week's Critics' Choice, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations will give the brothers reason enough to open it wide, at which time I hope the film will find more life than it has been able to muster in limited release... because it's excellent.

  • Matt

    Great article Brad, it's exactly how I feel too. I've been telling everybody I know to go out and see SLP, its one of my favorites this year and really incredible. I'm the first to complain about cliches in romantic comedies but I wasn't phased once during this film, for the same reasons that you mentioned here.

  • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

    Excellent article. I suppose it's not often that the ending is literally laid out right in front of us early on in the movie in a way such as this. I, too, missed this bit in that I didn't relate the Hemingway story to the movie as a whole, but it's very interesting. However, I am with you, Brad, in that I never needed convincing of the movie's quality. Silver Linings Playbook is a bonafide winner, a seriously good drama with laughs and elements of romantic comedy. It is very much cliched, but still works to the nth degree.

    It's nice to see you write up an editorial of this film, and I absolutely agree, more people need to be exposed to this movie. It will sit high on my end of the year Top Ten list, that's for sure.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/QuantumofSalLis/ QuantumofSalLis

    Great Article, Brad. I also just wanted to point out that even the way they get to the happy ending is foreshadowed when he's talking about "A Farewell to Arms" in this scene: "they're gonna be drinking wine and they dance -- they both like to dance with each other, there's scenes of them dancing, which was boring, but I liked it, because they were happy."

    The whole ending at the dance competition is foreshadowed by this. Pat started dancing with Tiffany out of obligation but then he starts to enjoy it. It starts out boring, but then he starts to like it because they're happy together. I mean - Russell really laid it out for everyone to see. Not cliche - poetic. Pat, throughout the film, starts paying attention to his real emotions rather than being dominated by his manic episodes.

    • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

      I noticed the dance competition foreshadowing as well upon reading the article. Pretty interesting technique on Russell's part -- as I said, you don't see massive foreshadowing in this type of manner very often -- and I absolutely loved the movie. I almost appreciate it more now because of this.

  • http://Twitter.com/sandovaldrew drew sandoval

    I have alot of complaints about this film, some which I recognize as my hang-ups.

    1. Am I the only one who think the middle-age-male fantasy of scoring of dirty, promiscous 22 year-old who totally adores you is disgusting? My gf didn't think it was either.

    2. What the hell was the psychiatrist doing at the family's house after the football brawl. Did he even have his shirt on? Why didn't he have the cop drop him off at his own house? i'll buy him going to the football game and being a raving fan on his own time, but at some point isn't it sorta not professional to go over to your clients house like another scolded little kid? This silly little detail really took me out of the movie. Is this a Adam Sandler movie or a romantic drama?

    3. The perfection of the storytelling really pulled me out of the film. Are we really going to solve all the characters problems and quirks (the gambling, the love story, the relationships) over the score of one dance? I recognize the skill it took David Russell to weave all the stings together in such a way that nearly everything pays off over the score of the dance, but come on man! You just spent so much time building these realistic characters we care about, don't blow it all on the most contrived ending possible.

    Yes, I want a happy ending to this movie, but a messier happy ending, one that isn't perfect, one that hews more closely to life as we live it.

    • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

      I don't think there is anything at all in the story that presents the "fantasy" you speak of, frankly. There is no fantasy involved here, outside of Pat wanting a silver lining. Pat doesn't want to be with Tiffany, he wants to reconcile with Nikki and go back to living his life, pre-incident. Yes, at the end of the movie he says he fell in love with her the moment he met her, but throughout the film, we see that Pat does his darnedest to not succumb to those feelings. It's not as though he wanders through the film doing anything he can to hook up with Tiffany.

      • http://Twitter.com/sandovaldrew drew sandoval

        Yeah, i get your point that they did sort of fight it. But it is still disgusting to watch that last shot gorgeous, young Jennifer Lawrence sitting in the lap of 37-year-old, aging, crow-eyed Bradley Cooper. Plus I can't help but think Bradley Cooper is gonna have his heart destroyed when Jennifer Lawrence leaves him for someone more in her age range.

        Couldn't they have cast someone more age appropriate against her? Ryan Gosling? Chaning Tatum has been doing some good work. Can Eddie Redmayne do a good American accent? It would have been a better movie.

        • Danny

          I don't think her characters age was the same as Jennifer Lawrences age in real life... Niether of the characters ages are ever discussed in the movie... The character of Tiffany had been married to her husband for three years prior to his death... I'm thinking the character of Tiffany was in her mid 20's and Jennifer Lawrence is a good enough actress to convey a character older than herself in real life... I looked at Tiffany as about 25 or so and the character of Pat I saw at about 34 or 35... That is still a ten year difference, but it's not out of the realm of reality.... I think you are right in stating it is your hang up with the age difference since you were confusing the real ages of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence with the ages of the characters that like I stated are never discussed or mentioned in the movie... The only time age is even sort of brought up is when Pat goes to dinner at his friends house and Tiffany is introduced as the younger sister... And really with this story and characters, age is not really a big issue... Even if it was 22 and 37, mainly because the focus is on the growth of the characters and their respective emotional and mental issues....

          • Newbourne

            Age is discussed further than that. When she asks him to have sex, Pat actually questions how old she is. Tiffany answers by saying she's old enough to be married or something along those lines.

            I think that shows that even Pat questioned Tiffany's youth. Too bad they didn't expand further on the topic.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mikey/ Mikey

    Great article Brad. This is currently my #1 movie of 2012 and I can't wait to see it for a third time. I think the key to this film working is that yes, you can see the happy ending coming, but that's also the ending you're hoping for. Its the ending that these likable, flawed, real characters deserve. I'm going to make a cliche comparison, but with Christmas so close I have it on the mind. The people who say they hate this movie because of the happy ending (and for no other reasons) are the same people who want George Bailey to commit suicide. Happy endings become a problem when they get tacked on or the movie feels the need to sacrifice plot or character to get there. However when a movie does everything right, and still manages to wind up at a happy place, well that's alright too.

  • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

    Brad, though I commend your eye for detail in bringing out what the director was intending to do all along, but I have to say, I disagree on most of your defense that the film isn't purposefully riddled with cliches.

    Here's my take, and I would love to see if you can defend these,

    1. The whole football betting plot seemed to be hackneyed. You always knew that Di Nero's character will lose the penultimate bet so as to raise the stakes among audience's mind whereas it was no-brainer that he would win the ultimate one.

    2. Jennifer Lawrence's character didn't show any interest in football throughout the film but just at the opportune moment she knows everything about it and manages to impress everyone. Ha, can it more cliched than that ?

    3. And Finally, one doesn't feel any excitement while watching the final dance competition since the results are out even before the performance begins David O Russell makes it too evident that they are not going to get 10/10 [since other dancers looked like professionals] and neither are they going to lose the bet [do I need to tell why ?]. For me, again too predictable.

    I think as the movie progresses it gets more and more cliche driven drama especially in the third act. I also believe though the film is about mental illness but it doesn't confront the illness rather it uses the illness to drive the drama, which I don't have any issues with, but to glorify the film just because it tackles an austere subject such as mental illness would be going too far.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Never said it wasn't purposely cliched, in fact said the opposite.

      • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

        "The cliches here are more as a result of human nature, and less a result of Hollywood storytelling."
        I disagree with this statement of yours which I interpreted as you saying whatever the cliches the film showed was due to human nature than actually following any stereotypical storytelling. What I meant by purposeful was that Russell didn't care about human nature as much he cared about maneuvering the impulses and reactions of audience.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

          We'll just have to agree to disagree, because given the personal nature of the film to Russell, I can't support the idea of him not caring about the human aspect of the story.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/chewbaca38/ Baca

    Great stuff man. (spoilers for Life of Pi)

    I thought it actually kind of is an example of the themes that Pi was pushing. Sure it may be easier to believe that things would not work out this way, and all the characters would fall deeper into depression, but in the end, which ending would you prefer? As you said I think Russell earns the ending in full, and I honestly think having it go the other route would feel like a deliberate attempt to avoid cliche in order to please people who can't view a film on its own merit, and have to bring the baggage of every other rom-com they see into the theater.

  • oliver

    I don't have a problem with the sweet and happy ending (and somewhat cliched story overall). I went in expecting something like that and after the Hemingway scene I was okay with it. What really threw me off was the whole football angle. Especially the bet.
    Although the film had somewhat quirky characters and weird dialog, I always felt like it could be a "real story". The bet pulled me right out of it. I could not imagine a real (relatively sane) person would put all his chips on his mentally ill son. That's not "giving it a little push", that kind of pressure would most likely CRUSH someone like that. So I had a choice of either letting go of my perspective of the whole movie or hating the characters (mostly dad, but also mom and the friend who accepted the bet) with a passion. I chose the former, because I still wanted that positive emotion. But the movie as a whole was still ruined for me...

    A little observation. Maybe it's just a coincidence (my sample pool is kinda small), but I noticed that all the guy-critics who gave this movie an A/A-, are also huge football fans. Maybe that's exactly that little something you need to just "go with it" (I for example have never been to nor even seen a American football match - greetings from another continent)

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/maja/ maja

    I may be in the minority but I just don't understand certain critics love for this film. I thought it was above average (I'd probably give it a B-) and the acting was terrific but there was just something missing. Yes, there was alot of cliches which bothered me...regardless of how you dress them up a cliche is a cliche and I'd rather see something new and different than something I've seen done a million times before.

    Furthermore, I just didn't feel any emotional connection to any of the characters - probably because I couldn't relate to any of them. What a movie relies so heavily on emotion and there is no connection to the characters then i put the blame on the film.

  • Scott

    My question to people who consider anything positive or optimistic to be an artificial cliche: how do you not see that directors who end everything on a negative, hopeless note aren't committing an equal cliche? There are many movies that clearly end with sour and bitter just to grasp at gravitas that wasn't really earned. As if negative somehow equals meaningful.

    You ended your movie with everyone dead or depressed, but that doesn't mean it's Hamlet, buddy.

    Just because you're miserable with your life doesn't mean fictional stories should always end everything with misery. It doesn't validate your worldview.

    I agree with the character's take on Hemingway.

  • http://www.seensome.com SeenSome

    The ending to a film can be positive or negative, it doesn't really matter, as long as it's true to the story.

    I'm glad you've finally acknowledged that Silver Linings is a rom-com though Brad, it's taken a while. ;) I wish people would stop arguing that it's a drama just because it has some emotional resonance, a rom-com is perfectly capable of that if it's done well. In fact, a good rom-com is one of the hardest things to write since there's only one way it can end so the journey has to be interesting enough to make people care when it reaches that point.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I've never not said it's a rom-com, I've always suggested it's romantic and comedic, but in the end is a drama.

      • http://www.seensome.com SeenSome

        The general definition of a rom-com is a funny movie centred on a love story that ends happily and features a couple who are clearly meant to be together but for whatever reasons thrown up by the plot, they don't see it until the end. That's pretty much exactly how Silver Linings goes. Yeah, it has some dramatic elements to it but the structure and narrative arc isn't that of a drama.

        Sorry for harping on about this so much but I think the comedy genre, particularly romantic comedies, get a hard time and here is a great rom-com that's getting a ton of awards buzz and people seem desperate to label it a drama. A similar thing happened last year with The Artist which, beneath the black and white, silent movie trappings, is essentially a romantic comedy.

      • Newbourne

        That's an odd classification. "This is Forty" is romantic, comedic and has many dramatic elements like child abandonment, bankrupcy, etc. Does that make it a Romantic comedic drama?

        Or how about "Life As We Know It"? The baby's both parents are killed off in the first 10 minutes. That's serious stuff there.

        I think a lot of romantic comedies could be classified as a "Romantic and comedic drama" using that kind of logic. The difference between the ones I mentioned and Silver Linings is that the latter is great and the others suck.

        Just because Silver Linings is better than all the other romantic comedies doesn't stop it from being a romantic comedy.

  • John Gibson

    Bi-polar. That's the theme and every aspect of the film reflects it, especially the dance scene. Beat by beat the film swings manic to depressive and back. On and on the pendulum goes. I loved it.

    The ending isn't negative or positive (in comparison to bi-polar) but rather it's neutral. Maybe the rom-com ending was meant to seem cliche to give the illusion of normality.

    • John Gibson

      I would also like to state that those who label this film as a rom-com is missing the point. I fully believe this film is a drama that explores bi-polar disorder. Many of the sequences and relationships conveyed the disorder in a metaphoric way, like the football scenario and the father's involvement in it.

      Almost all the characters were bi-polar of varying degrees.

      Many in Hollywood have some sort of bi-polar disorder and it's also well known that Hemingway was bi-polar as well.