We want certain things from a romantic comedy; there are requirements. Number one being, naturally, that the couple in question gets together in the end. Given that the film’s resolution is preordained, the challenge is, as it has been since the days of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, remains how to keep the journey engaging. Some movies, like Annie Hall (1977), subvert the format. Others, such as When Harry Met Sally (1989), embrace it, counting on sharp writing and distinct performances to distract viewers from the creaky plot mechanics.
Oscar-nominated The Silver Linings Playbook seems like it wants to fall within the first category, but in reality, belongs squarely in the second.
In fact, the film’s biggest surprise is how conventional it is, since director David O. Russell still carries a lot of indie cred even though those days are long behind. If you want to find the film it likely most resembles, you have to dial the wayback machine to Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), in which a seemingly daffy woman sets her sights on a man who wants nothing to do with her. Shake well. Rinse. Repeat. The twist in SLP is that both characters are daffy. (Although a case can be made that Cary Grant’s paleontologist in Baby is as nuts as Hepburn’s airy heiress. In fact, Hawks later lamented that he made a mistake in having no character in the film come off as “normal.”)
Kate’s off her meds again.
We, of course, don’t use terms such as “daffy” any longer to describe ducks any longer, much less people. The subtext of Russell’s film is that everyone is a little off, all of us has a disorder of some kind. When they meet, Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) bond over prescription meds. To misquote Bryan Ferry, love isn’t the drug. Not anymore. To its credit, the film’s treatment of mental illness is complex. And there is no suggestion that those afflicted can simply will themselves to get better. Progress is accomplished over time, but the wolf is always at the door. A trigger is all it takes.
But extract those elements from the film and you’re left with good-looking guy from crazy family hooking up with good-looking girl from a likely crazy family. (In other words, Romeo, meet Juliet.) SLP’s ultimate appeal beyond Russell’s smart writing and direction is a bona fide movie star in Lawrence, who seems light years beyond the white-trash big sis she played in Winter’s Bone. (No comment on The Hunger Games.) As they say, she has a quality. When she cries, you, as a viewer, want to do something about it.
Lawrence’s Tiffany is the very latest in man-fixing models. Like Hepburn 70 years ago, she roars into Cooper’s life, determined to upend it, even it is for her own selfish purposes. As a man whose life could use more than a tune-up, I can’t help but feel like the target demo. That’s the insidiousness of the whole enterprise. Nathan Rabin, writing for the Onion’s AV Club, famously coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl to describe the modern device (male) writers have developed, the devoted girl who makes it all better.
Tiffany is no pixie. She’s just manic—and less a dream girl unless your fantasies involve riding an emotional Demon Drop the rest of your life. While SLP would like us to believe these two are the keys to each other’s future happiness, we know that it will not be an easy ride.
Contrast that with Kirsten Dunst of Elizabethtown, the original MPDG, who seemingly never has a bad day, hair or otherwise. Dunst exists in life purely to buck up the sad-sack protagonist played by Orlando Bloom in Cameron Crowe’s film. Her inner life, to the extent it’s there at all, lies hidden behind such an eagerness to please that extracting it would require heavy duty mining equipment. (She’s a creature with such a lack of a backstory that there have been suggestions that she’s an angel.)
Lonely? Call 1-800-733-MPDG.
Dunst’s stewardess character, like Crowe’s film itself, isn’t without her charms, not the least of which is her sheer dedication (call it pluck at your own risk) to shaking Bloom out of his funk. But Elizabethtown is entirely his story, not hers. For that reason, and for others, the film was critically bashed and is widely viewed as Lesser Crowe, along with Vanilla Sky (pending, under review) and We Bought a Zoo (motion granted). That’s probably fair, but Crowe has always walked a fine line between verisimilitude and bubble-gum pop (even his living-on-the-edge rock stars in Almost Famous don’t really feel dangerous) and the cocktail in Elizabethtown is simply mixed poorly. An affecting sequence, Bloom’s road trip at Dunst’s behalf, follows a disastrous scene involving Susan Sarandon tap dancing at her ex-husband’s memorial service. It’s the kind of misstep Crowe never made in his Jerry Maguire days.
Crowe’s films have always favored emotions and sentiment over realism, but the scale of Bloom’s character is all wrong. An early scene, where he seems on the verge of suicide, isn’t earned at all; he seems like a quitter, a wimp, not a desperately sad man. He’s just a dude in a bad mood. In that context, it doesn’t seem like it would take more than a ray of morning sunshine–and I say that in as pejorative a way as possible–like Dunst to pick him up.
In the Silver Linings Playbook, the characters are troubled to their cores. And it will take more than an elaborate map—or a dance competition for that matter—to fix them. In that sense, Russell is offering us as much of a fantasy as Crowe. It may be all downhill from here, but those are the rules of the game.