Happy endings are, to the general understanding of most critics of literary narrative, simultaneously impossible and unavoidable. Ever since the words “happily”, “ever”, and “after” were first written together as a three-word expression, people have been chastising the notion of positive endings as cheesy, uninspired, and – perhaps most cynically – unrealistic. Movements in literature have practically been initiated as a retort to the idea of a happy ending, and for whatever reason, many people today continue to find error in the notion that, in the end, things can work out smoothly.
Yet happy endings still persist, most commonly in the romantic comedy, which – while having proven itself time and again as perhaps the most uninspired genre of moviemaking – has also proven itself to be perhaps the bravest for maintaining the faith that, as Susan Vance chirps in Bringing Up Baby, one of the common ancestors of the romantic and screwball comedies: “Everything’s going to be all right”. And so Silver Linings Playbook – a new, unusual romantic comedy based upon a novel by Matthew Quick – corresponds to that wonderful philosophy, although it does acknowledge more than most in its genre that the path to that happiness may be a tough one – and that is what sets this movie apart.
Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of Pat Solitano, a man who moves in with his parents after being released from a mental institution, where he was treated for bipolar disorder. Determined to remain in good spirits and to find the “silver linings” in life, Pat takes up reading and working out, with the hopes of winning back the affections of his estranged wife, Nikki. As we come to understand, Pat was put under treatment after a violent outburst, sparked by the discovery of his wife with another man. Now, as Pat struggles to cling on to some source of motivation in his life, he meets Tiffany, the similarly troubled, widowed sister-in-law of Pat’s friend Robbie.
The two become tentative friends, alternately responding to their common instability with understanding and antagonism. Determined to reconnect with his wife, Pat asks Tiffany if she will deliver a letter to Nikki for him; she agrees, but on the condition that Pat enter a dancing competition with her, so that, as Tiffany puts it, “someone can finally do a favor” for her. He agrees, and the rest of the film follows Pat as his deepening connection with Tiffany provides him with the constructive relationship that he needs in order to grow – and that she needs in order to grow, as well.
The film achieves a level of humanity, and a depth in character, that is highly unusual for the world of romantic comedies. The characters are defined by major flaws and emotional handicaps, as much as they are defined by their respective efforts to rise above those handicaps. There is as much darkness to Silver Linings Playbook as there is humor or romance, and the ultimate result is a unique portrait of two troubled people, falling in love.
Bradley Cooper, as Pat, is exceptional. Utterly believable in a difficult role, Cooper is here required to walk a fine line between determination and complete emotional collapse. He handles the task with credibility and skill, establishing himself as a highly capable actor. Jennifer Lawrence also delivers a brilliant performance, bringing Tiffany to life with integrity, talent, and remarkable emotional wisdom for someone her age. Robert DeNiro plays the part of Pat’s father with concern and vulnerability, and Chris Tucker provides charming comic relief during his sporadic appearances as Pat’s friend from the mental institution.
The direction here is also very good. David O. Russell makes some excellent choices in the way of movement and framing which benefit the film visually, and the locations and sets help to give the film its air of accessibility. There is a sense of the everyday here, as though we were entering the homes and streets of actual people we may know – it is as much a crowd-pleaser for its story as it is for its relatable atmosphere.
Early in the movie, Pat, upon finishing Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, tosses the book through his bedroom window, and rushes down to his parents’ bedroom, to exclaim his horror at the fact that Hemingway should end his novel with the love interest’s death. He asks why a story – that was otherwise so rewarding – would feature such a sad ending. Desperate for a happy future, he asks, “Can’t people think in terms of positive endings?” As it turns out, he does get a happy ending, and it is a testament to the validity of this film that Silver Linings Playbook does not feel any less real for accepting the answer, “yes”.