"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

So I haven't done one of these for a while! But I love reviewing movies, almost as much as I love going to the movies, and last night I went to see Silver Linings Playbook as a way to get out of the house and see friends and get my mind off schoolwork for a few hours. I had seen the preview and thought it looked appealingly American and funny - two good qualities for a literature student in England, because, you know, a lot of dark and weird books to read and a lot of missing America. The movie wasn't exactly what I was expecting (although it is both very American and very funny), but the unexpected was all to the good. So here you go, a movie you should definitely see if you have any interest in what it's like to be diagnosed with a mental illness, or be undiagnosed with a mental illness, or fall in love, or fall out of love, or be American, or just be a person. I recommend it.
This picture basically sums up what I felt like during the first, maybe 15 minutes in the theater. Pat Solitano gets out of a mental hospital and goes back to live with his parents in Philadelphia and things aren't going well. For a while, it seems like the whole movie is going to be us following Pat's doomed attempt to "get in shape," physically and mentally, for his estranged wife, Nikki - doomed because she has a restraining order against him since he beat her lover to a pulp and got diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder. This isn't giving anything away, because all that drama is the starting point of the story. The real meat of it is what happens afterward, the story of dealing with a daily routine of no job and pills to take and trying to stay optimistic when the only goal you're clinging to is basically unreachable.
 The first sign of how good this movie is, and what a nuanced portrayal of mental illness it offers, is the sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious blend of financial and emotional disarray with unfailing optimism and really deep family love and loyalty that Pat finds in his parent's house. His mom's refrain at moments of crisis, that it's game day (the family, but mostly his dad, are big Philadelphia Eagles fans) and she's making 'crabby snacks', is so pitiful and yet delivered with such a bright hope that it seems to sums up everything about this family. Pat is still prone to violent episodes, his father has been banned from the Eagles stadium for getting in too many fights, and neither of them has a job while Pat's older brother is thriving in his work and his marriage. They all end up hurting each other with words and sometimes fists, but hurting each other is the last thing they want to do. It's refreshing to see family eccentricity portrayed alongside such palpable family love, to be able to laugh at them and feel for them without feeling caught out in either emotion.
Actually, it's not just a movie about family. It's also about a wider community, including Pat Sr.'s best friend who roots for the opposite team, Pat's friend from the hospital, who keeps trying to get out and being escorted back (a running joke but also a pretty heart-rending glimpse into the endless paperwork and bureaucracy in which he is trapped), and Pat's friend from before, whose marriage is making him crazier than the people who've been diagnosed with actual mental disorders.
And then there's Tiffany, that friend's wife's sister. (But before I say anything else, can we just take a moment to appreciate Jennifer Lawrence's face in this still? She's wonderful.) After her husband died, she got herself a diagnosis and plenty of pills, and there's a hilarious exchange between her and Pat where they compare notes on the horrible effects of various medications. The rest of the movie integrates her into Pat's quest to recover his life and his happiness, because she's searching for some of the same things.

 The relationship between these two doesn't progress in your classic rom-com or dramatic romance style. In fact, you're never really sure where they're headed, because they interact like real people - if a little more explosively, with more mortifying awkwardness and more drastic mood swings. They stutter and stumble and make fools of themselves and still manage to carry on and make something of it.
Throughout the twists and turns of the movie, the directors, actors, etc. manage to keep an impressive balance of pathos and humor. In other works that do the same, that combination can be pretty aggressive, making us pull up short mid-laugh as we come face-to-face with horror. But in this movie, the laughs are mixed more mildly with pangs of recognition and moments of real empathy. Over and over, it gave me exactly the kind of feeling you get in real life when things are so desperate they're funny, or when something so awkward and inappropriate just slipped out of your mouth that you have no choice but to laugh at yourself. There's a particular moment when Pat Sr. is enraged, out in the middle of the night in his pyjamas yelling at a neighbor's son who's been pestering them, and then, in the middle of his diatribe, he just stops and gives up his anger. You can see him just take that step back and realize how ridiculous the whole situation is and decide it's not worth his time. In a straight drama, he would bring his rage to a cathartic breaking point and come away with some deep realization. In a straight comedy his fury would grow to exaggerated proportions and be turned to comic effect. But here, we're allowed to be sorry and laugh, without feeling contradictory or hypocritical.
It's not really a spoiler to say that the movie has a happy ending, because it's not clear until near the very end what scenario would actually constitute a happy ending for Pat or anybody. But you don't feel cheated or condescended to by the ending any more than by the humor. This is an honestly and believably optimistic movie. Pat's drive to get better is a kind of American dream that's easy to get behind and rewarding. I walked out of the movie happy, not because I'd escaped into a fantasy utopia, but because I'd been given a new perspective on my world and my life that made things look no less hard, but much more full of silver linings.

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