There suddenly seem to be a number of recent films that boast a revised view of white male masculinity, from Your Sister’s Sister to Jeff, Who Lives at Home, to Liberal Arts. I’m not referring to the awkward, insistently not queer stylings of the modern bromance, a category that seems formed to skirt the issues of homosociality and non-normative heterosexuality that their characters evoke but from which they shy resolutely away. I’ve noticed instead more serious though often whimsical films in which the straight white male lead suffers an emotional crisis that lets him back away from more conventional social understandings of how men are supposed to act. In an earlier era, these kinds of crises might have feminized their characters but now, they seem to authenticate a more thoughtful, even sensitive version of their straight masculinity.
Silver Linings Playbook proves another entry in this gender revision drama. With Bradley Cooper proving his acting range, and Jennifer Lawrence continuing to impress with her terrifically nuanced, strong and quirky performance, the film sets their characters on a winding, carefully picked path toward one another through the minefields of their own damaged lives.
Cooper plays Pat Solitano, an emotionally complicated, officially bipolar middle-class white guy who’s sprung from a psychiatric facility by his mother (Jacki Weaver) as the film begins. He might not yet have completely come to terms with the violence he inflicted on the man he caught having an affair with his wife. But he’s remorseful about the crime and earnest enough about his own rehabilitation to eagerly leave his Baltimore hospital and return home to the modest Philadelphia neighborhood where he moves in with his parents to reboot his life.
Weaver is wonderful as the stereotypical, golden-hearted mother who adores her youngest son. She serves mostly to keep the peace between Pat and his equally, if differently, psychologically afflicted father, Pat, Sr. (Robert DeNiro, in a lovely, understated performance as the OCD patriarch). Weaver plays the mostly reactive wife/mother, who beams back and forth between her men proudly, just hoping that they’ll continue to get along.
When Pat barges into his parents’ bedroom in the middle of most nights with some cockamamie idea he needs to unload, Weaver’s sleep-blurred love and acceptance of her son’s odd quirks is moving and somehow true. Weaver grounds Silver Linings as the missus determined to make the most of the new normal Pat’s diagnosis brings to their lives.
Chris Tucker co-stars as Danny, one of Pat’s fellow patients, who keeps giving his minders the slip. He reappears often and unexpectedly in Pat’s post-hospitalization life to insist that he, too, is cured, even though his own idiosyncrasies indicate that psychiatric health is relative indeed. Tucker’s unremarked race—though he plays Danny with an “urban” dialect and brio that underscore his difference from Pat and his Italian family—offers a strange backdrop against which to play out Pat’s chance to remake his life.
Tucker often provides the film’s broader comedy in ways that come perilously close to stepping and fetching. But the actor’s own bravado and his complex performance thankfully keep the role more real than director/screenwriter David O. Russell (who adapted the story from Matthew Quick’s novel) might have intended.
Likewise, Anumpar Kher plays Dr. Cliff Patel, the psychiatrist assigned to keep Pat on his meds and to help him ponder his mental health outside the safety of the hospital. The compassionate, empathic doctor understands Pat’s illness and offers practical help. But for this character of color, too, Russell devises a strange plot twist in which Patel and his friends bump into Pat and his family at an Eagles football tailgating party, where the South Asian men are harassed by a group of white Philly thugs.
Pat and his father and brother battle the bullies, and Dr. Patel winds up tagging around with the family through the rest of the film, wearing the weird green face-paint that Eagles fans sport around game time. That Pat accumulates this rather odd extended family through his disease seems part of Russell’s point. But the film’s racial overtones are oblique rather than illuminating. Perhaps to represent a new white masculinity, Pat needs these men of color nearby to shore up his continued centrality. I’m not sure . . .
Likewise, John Ortiz plays Pat’s best friend, Ronnie, in another racially inflected casting choice. Ronnie and his wife, Veronica (an underused Julia Stiles), are Pat’s connection to his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee). Pat mistakenly believes he can reconnect with Nikki, despite the physical and emotional damage his outburst over her infidelity caused.
In fact, that he nearly killed Nikki’s lover isn’t examined very closely here. Cooper plays Pat with a manic energy, but without implying the threat that the beating he bestowed might imply. We have to take on faith that Pat is truly recovered and that while he still seems emotionally wild, he’s got his physical brutality under control. It’s a bit shifty that we’re asked to identify with and cheer on a cuckold whose violent outburst the film suggests is justified, if induced and intensified by his bipolar disease.
Ronnie and Veronica introduce Pat to Tiffany (Lawrence), Veronica’s widowed sister, hoping to distract him from the lost cause of his marriage. Tiffany’s husband has been killed in a senseless car accident about which she feels guilty—he was off buying her lingerie to help reinvigorate their sex life when he died. In response, she has sex with everyone in her office and develops a reputation as a mournful “slut” that she wears proudly.
Lawrence plays single-minded, sad Tiffany as bothered not at all by what anyone might say about her behavior. She wears black; she says what she wants; and when she decides she’s interested in Pat, she tracks him mercilessly, popping up unexpectedly beside him in her running clothes while he’s out for his daily jogs through their neighborhood. She’s the aggressor in the relationship, courting him with the promise of nothing more than clear-sighted companionship and her shared understanding of his grief.
Pat wears a garbage bag over his clothes when he runs so that he’ll sweat more, since Nikki once insisted he lose weight. Other characters comment regularly on the reformed Pat’s new body, and Cooper wears his own hunky physique lightly, with the pride of someone unaccustomed to having his appearance remarked. Although he’s the romantic lead, Cooper performs like his is the character part, and for most of the film, it really is.
In its last moments, when the film shifts into romantic comedy mode, Cooper steps into a performance recycled from a more conventional genre so that he can “get the girl.” But until then, the quirky comedy lets him shirk his beautiful person persona and play someone much more broken and layered.
Silver Linings Playbook comes together around a dance competition for which Tiffany insists Pat partner her. She does their choreography and he gamely tries to follow along. In a silly subplot, one of Pat, Sr.’s friends persuades him to bet all the money he’s been saving to start a restaurant on the outcome of an Eagles’ game. He also throws in stakes for Pat and Tiffany; if they can score at least a five in their competition, he’ll forgive the bet. The only thing the bet accomplishes is to bring Pat’s whole family (and his ex, Nikki) together to cheer on Pat and Tiffany when they compete. The ensemble’s investment in the outcome of the dance contest is deep and their spirits are high.
I’m not giving away the story here, since the last third or so of Silver Linings is predictable. But Cooper and Lawrence play Pat and Tiffany’s developing trust and understanding with sensitive clarity. Their commitment to the make-shift moves of their competition choreography and their willingness to make fools of themselves as actors if not as their characters, makes the scene endearing and funny. Naturally, after they score a five, and after she misunderstands a conversation he has with Nikki at the dance event, Pat confesses that he’s in love with Tiffany.
In a short epilogue, Tiffany joins the Solitanos in their cramped but cozy home, celebrating an Eagles win. Lawrence crawls onto Cooper’s lap in an overstuffed chair and they cuddle happily. Silver Linings Playbook might end on a slightly facile note, but the moment coaxes a smile from the typically poker-faced Tiffany that lights up the screen. Her expression shows in an instant how in control of her performance Lawrence has been until that moment, as it’s the first in which she allows the character to crack her gruff, suspicious façade and show her heart. Pat responds in kind while his mother watches proudly and it’s kind of impossible not to get behind the moment with them. Pat has insisted throughout that he’ll get his silver lining; with Tiffany on his lap, how can you not believe he’s been successful?
Russell also depicts the football fanaticism of middle-class Philly inner-city neighborhoods without condescension. Pat wears an Eagles jersey to the dinner party where he meets Tiffany, embarrassed that Ronnie sports a tie and Veronica a dress. His dad, Pat, Sr., is superstitious enough to believe that Pat’s presence in front of the television watching the game brings the team luck. And when even his shrink turns out to be a gleeful fan, you realize that these men find their commitment not only to sports but to one another through their love of the game. Pat’s playbook is just as important as his silver lining. And in the end, he achieves them both.
The Feminist Spectator