Damaged Goods

Film review: Silver Linings Playbook (Director: David O. Russell)

By Sascha Krieger

No, this man clearly isn’t fine. He’s not ok or alright or anything. He’s a time bomb certain to explode. He doesn’t look, he glares. The face is a tightly fitted mask that hardly manages to hold in check what‘ trying to come out. The words about being positive and getting his life back together are well-learned phrases which clash violently with the language of his face. He’s learned all the self-help lingo and he’s well-versed in the speech of pharmaceuticals. And that’s all that’s needed to declare him fit enough to go back into the real world – at least with a little persuasion from his mother. Silver Linings Playbook is a remarkably open as well as funny portrayal of a misfit, a man diagnosed bipolar after almost killing the man his wife cheated him with. And it is a warm-hearted comedy about broken people and society’s way of dealing with them, containing several jibes at America’s obsession with both the self-help hype as well as psychotropic drugs. For among other things, this is also a satire on America’s belief that there are easy answers for ever problem. Give an obsessive and angry man a few drugs and a positive life motto, and all will be well. but it isn’t, as Bradley Cooper’s tight face tells us right away.

Silver Lining Playbook also deals with the need for people to function. Society’s biggest problem with Pat Solitano is that he isn’t properly functioning, that he doesn’t respond to crises in the expected way, that he cannot or will not control himself. The same is true for Tiffany (Jennfer Lawrence) who Pat meets at dinner at a friend’s house. She responded to the death of her husband by sleeping with every man at her company. Again she was outcast, diagnosed as depressive, not functional. There is a wonderful scene when Pat and Tiffany discus various psycho drugs and their side effects. All these easy solutions they are nothing but a joke. A sad one though because it can destroy people’s lives.

Of course, nothing is simple. Pat is not cured and despite a restriction order is convinced he will get back together with his wife. Things do not go smoothly and the time bomb goes off repeatedly as demonstrated when his psychiatrist plays his wedding song which he associates with his wife’s cheating and all that followed. It does not take a second to unleashed a Hulk-like anger in Pat. All this therapy, all those drugs have not deactivated the time bomb, quite to the contrary. They have giving him a disguise in which to wrap himself up and disguise his true nature, pretending he has learned how to function again.

Instead, the film celebrates the dysfunctional. There is Pat’s father (Robert De Niro), an illegal bookkeeper and football fan who has been banned from the stadium for violent behavior. There is Pat’s best friend who dreams of breaking out of his marriage. There is fellow-patient Danny, a hair-obsessed volatile bundle of joy. And there is Tiffany, brutally honest just like Pat, who falls for him quickly and tries to break his shell and tear him away from his obsession with his wife.

This is where the film works: How the distant and rejecting Pat allows Tiffany into his life, if only as a useful tool to communicate with his wife. How Tiffany craves to find someone to be near her, someone to understand her, someone not only a sex partner. Their slowly developing relationship with its many ups and downs, with funny twists and turns and unsettling breakdowns is what turns the film into one of the better ones this year. Russell gives them time, allows them long periods without word, where looks and their avoidance, where his rigid posture and her uncertain walk speak louder than any dialogue could. These are „damaged goods“ slowly moving into a mutual comfort zone in which they are not judged on the basis of whether thy function or not but from which they can be ejected – or from which they can eject themselves – at any time.

So far so good but unfortunately, Silver Linings Playbook, later falls into the trap of becoming itself what it set out criticizing. For Russell finds an easy and painfully simple answer: With the help of a dance competition, Pat ends up falling in love with Tiffany and in the end all is well and everybody is happy. All problems are solved by love and understanding and so the film ends in the most disappointing of happy endings, turning into a shallow romantic comedy and throwing everything over board that made the film interesting in the first place. So instead of drugs and self-help strategies, the film’s happy ending suggests love as a cure for all. The drugs don’t work so let#s get another one. To state that the film’s resolution was disappointing would be an understatement.

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