The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Healthy Lie of Silver Linings Playbook

Written by Owen Weetch.

Photo from the article It could be argued that Silver Linings Playbook is pure contrivance - that genre and happenstance are relied upon to compel its characters into action rather than their feelings and motivations. What begins as a look into mental illness, obsession, depression and marital discomfort gradually begins to settle into formulae - part Christmas movie, part screwball comedy, with a dash of dance film chucked in for good measure. In my short review of the film I asserted that this move functions reassuringly as a kind of comfort blanket for its troubled leads and the audience rooting for them. I maintain this belief, but am also anxious to explore the ways in which this choice is enacted and validated. In its narrative about the power of narratives, Silver Linings Playbook can be viewed as a resolutely positive piece of postmodern storytelling. This positivity doesn’t necessarily lead to a skimping on the very serious issues raised. Just like its protagonist’s desire to “take all this negativity as fuel and […] find a silver lining”, the film’s awareness of hardship and pain constantly informs its exploration of the extent to which the stories that people tell themselves may be either harmful or helpful.

The importance of honesty is a concern that runs throughout the film and finds its clearest articulation in the central relationship between Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Other characters in the film lie to themselves about the nature of their lives, their dishonesty contrasted with the more nuanced bending of the truth that is integral to the success of the leads’ relationship. Though Pat’s best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), is keen to assert that “We’re doing all right, man, I can’t complain”, it only takes a nudge from Pat about the market being down for Ronnie to confide in him that he’s “not okay”. As the two of them stand in front of a gaudy portrait of Ronnie, Veronica (Julia Stiles) and their unnamed baby, the imprisoned paterfamilias asks Pat not to tell anybody that he feels like he’s “getting crushed” and “suffocated” by “everything - the family, the baby, the job, the fucking dicks at work”. Pat begins the film with his back turned to the camera, saying that his relationship with Nikki (Brea Bee) is “true love”. This is a lie he will keep up for the duration of the film’s running time, telling Nikki that it is normal for couples to fight and not talk to one another for a couple of weeks, and that even though there is a restraining order between them, “I’m my best self today, and I think she’s her best self today, and our love’s gonna be fucking amazing.” Nikki becomes associated with the damaging lies Pat tells to himself.

Tiffany, on the other hand, seems to be the only character in the film that understands how to properly use the truth. The way she engages with Pat is direct and unaffected, and this attitude is reinforced stylistically. The use of direct-to-camera address serves to underscore a shared attraction between Pat and Tiffany based, to a degree, upon a particular kind of honesty. I have already mentioned the first shot of Pat in the film, his face turned away from the camera as he stands alone in his room at the mental health institution, speaking to the non-present Nikki, deluding himself about their “true love”. Only after he is told that it is time for him to leave does Pat turn to face the camera, the audience’s first access to his eyes granted as he stares hollowly into the camera lens. Further shots of Pat will adopt a similar face-on vantage point. We receive no reverse shot of other characters taken from a similar angle, however, until Pat is introduced to Tiffany in the sequence at Ronnie and Veronica’s house.

Her introduction is prefaced by Ronnie’s informing Pat that Tiffany’s husband, Tommy, has recently died. Ronnie tells him not to bring it up, and Pat asks him how this happened. Tiffany enters the room at this moment, asking “How did who die?” Pat tells Tiffany that she looks nice. She thanks him. He is at pains to make her aware that he is not flirting with her, only that he is acknowledging the effort she has made, and to tell her that he is working on his relationship with his wife. She assures him that she did not think he was flirting. Pat then asks her - in a shot where he faces the camera - how Tommy died. Out of focus in the background of the reverse shot of Tiffany, Ronnie puts his head in his hands at Pat’s gaucheness. Tiffany, however, does not seem perturbed.

During this conversation, there is a point-of-view shot taken from Pat’s perspective showing Tiffany, or rather her fingernails (painted black) and her cleavage (undermining his verbal protestations of non-interest). The handheld camera then tilts up from this view to her face, to show that she is already looking at both Pat and the camera now aligned with him, and that - contrary to what she just said - she knows exactly what he is thinking (Later on, as they argue outside the cinema, she will alone be able to understand that Pat has begun to hear ‘Ma Cherie Amour’ in his head and will be able to calm him down by telling him that “There’s no song playing”). This is the first time in the film that anybody has had power to look back at Pat, and as Tiffany walks into her sister’s dining room she looks back over her shoulder into the lens, as if to underscore this secret understanding.

At the dinner table their bonding over the side-effects of various drugs causes Veronica discomfort (she functions as the film’s Aunt Sally of ‘normality’), and the two walk back to Tiffany’s house. Tiffany tells him that she saw the way he was looking at her, that she felt it and that he felt it, and that he shouldn’t “lie” about it. She tells him, “We’re not liars like they are.” When Pat says he is not interested because he is married, she replies that she is too; he tells her this is not the case, since her husband is dead. She falls onto him and hugs him, sobbing into his shoulder, before standing back and slapping him hard in the face. This slap is an act as ingenuous as her no-bullshit look at the camera. Violence, throughout the film, is often associated with ingenuousness. Consider: Pat’s attack on the history teacher who was sleeping with his wife; his accidental violence towards his mother during his pain at not being able to watch his wedding video; his rejection of Hemingway; his “explosions” upon hearing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Ma Cherie Amour’; and his defence of his brother at the Eagles game. Tiffany’s slap, then, acknowledges Pat’s honesty - nobody else wants to bring her husband’s death up in front of her - in kind. Such violent “explosions” are mainly confined to the first half of the film. As the relationship between Pat and Tiffany deepens there is a diminishing of violence and the ascendance of something more interesting. Tiffany begins to lie to Pat through the letter she purports comes from Nikki and Silver Linings Playbook begins to suggest that honesty, like violence, might not always be the best policy.

An argument begins to insinuate itself: a lie might be healthier than the truth - or, at least, a certain kind of lie. While Tiffany asserts that she and Pat are not “liars like they are,” they are liars of a different sort. Tiffany’s promise to Pat the she will deliver his letter to Nikki is perhaps the film’s most overt example of productive dishonesty because it compels Pat to channel his angst into dance practice (something so conducive to the good that it compels Dolores, when she discovers he is spending his time doing a “dancing thing”, to kiss him on the head). The letter which Pat receives in return - written by Tiffany but masquerading as coming from Nikki - implores him to show something to prove that he is ready to resume their marriage. When Pat leaves, despondent at what he perceives to be the letter’s negativity, Tiffany calls after him that his decision to dance with her (a decision based on a lie) shows “all kinds of skills on so many different levels: focus, collaboration, discipline.” She resignedly tells him that this is both “romantic”, and “for [Nikki]”. Pat’s decision to withhold from Tiffany that he knows of her deception serves as a reciprocal lie, and is justified in the film’s closing moments.

Pat tells Tiffany that he wrote the letter to her a week ago and that he thought not saying anything until now. Once again, a lie is here associated through dialogue with being “romantic.” The benefits of deception are further underlined when Tiffany and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) conspire to get Pat to attend the dance competition by telling him a “white lie.” Nikki will be present, they will tell him. Dolores is doubtful, asking Tiffany if it makes her nervous; she replies, “Yes, a little bit - but it’s for the best.” Even Pat’s therapist, Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), engages in a productive bending of the truth. If Pat becomes friends with Tiffany, Dr. Patel tells him, “Nikki will think that you’re a kind, large-hearted person, who helps people in need, who is basically thriving”, and that if he helps Tiffany, “it will be good for you.”

The film’s climax ties together the film’s threads of untruth, ultimately vindicating the healthy lie. As if invoked by insincere incantation, Nikki actually shows up to the dance competition. Pat Sr.’s superstitions - which have both allowed him to take up bookkeeping and keep his obsessive-compulsive disorder undiagnosed - are catered to and reinforced by Tiffany, who tells us she has done her research. This research seems to pay off, and Pat’s decision to “believe in the Eagles” and “believe in [his] son” results in him being able to set up a restaurant, to the frustration of Randy (Paul Herman), a character who is suggested not to have the appropriate relationship to truth, lying in bad faith against his own interests. Tiffany criticises him in the Solitanos’ home for his protestations that he “feel[s] terrible” about taking the bet. She tells him to fuck off, seeing through him and maintaining that he actually loves “turning the knife.” When Randy protests, his words betray a discomfort with mendacity that Tiffany simply does not have: “That’s bullshit! That’s not true! Don’t say that!”

The final dance sequence presents us with the ultimate healthy lie, conforming to what Dr. Patel calls Pat’s “beautiful positive philosophy”, spurred on by what Pat dismissively calls his “crazy sad shit.” Music is presented throughout the film as something whose use is instrumental to wellbeing. It can be harmful and helpful, and nowhere is this as clear as in the use of ‘Ma Cherie Amour’, which begins as a song played at a wedding day before mutating into Pat’s albatross. Ronnie admits to Pat that sometimes he will retire to his garage and listen to the soundtrack to West Side Story (1961), which he says makes him feel peaceful. He also listens to Metallica and Megadeth, and partakes in “fucking smashing some shit”. When Pat judges that this might not be the healthiest course of action, Ronnie counters that it makes him feel better. “It’s like my therapy”, he says. Ronnie and Pat are later shown dancing in slow motion at the Eagles game in a heightened moment of male bonding.

Pat and Tiffany’s dance routine is the movement to music that functions as the film’s most productive form of “therapy”. (Consider the shots of Tiffany’s studio and its dancing paraphernalia at the film’s end, and their similarity in composition and accompanying musical score to the shots which open the film of Pat’s room at the mental health institution. These series of shots function as bookends and imply a preference for the later therapeutic setting). While the dance makes good on Tiffany’s promise that it will show off “all kinds of skills”, this is not to say that the improvement it represents is clear to everyone. Dolores and Pat Sr., familiar with their son’s problems, appear to be very moved, but Veronica, ‘normal’ as ever, watches the number like it’s a car crash.

The judges decide to award them five out of ten, not a particularly stellar score. Prompted by the victorious hollering of Tiffany and the Solitanos, the Emcee wonders, “Why are they so excited about a five?” By conventional standards, then, the dance is not a success. Recalling somewhat the finale of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine (another Oscar-friendly film that dismisses the dictum of ‘normality’ in preference of familial oddity), the routine, which matters so much to the protagonists, is quite frankly a bit of a mess. Pat and Tiffany move through a medley of radically different songs with alacrity, dancing in a slapdash of according styles. The “big move” they have been practicing throughout the second half of the film is rather fumbling. The number never descends into awfulness, however. Rather than the adroitness of the dance, most of the number’s particular charm comes from the way it is shot. Stylistic strategies conspire to suggest that, though this dance isn’t something you necessarily would want to watch, you might want to be a part of it.

West Side Story is not the only classical Hollywood musical invoked in the film. During their rehearsals, Pat and Tiffany are shown watching the ‘Moses Supposes’ number from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), inviting us to contrast the virtuosity of such numbers and what they represent with the dance number in this film. Whereas Kelly’s film often shoots dances in full-body shot with a minimum of cuts, Silver Linings Playbook edits with abandon and often neglects to show footwork. It is pointedly not classical in its deviation from the norm. Visual emphasis is instead placed on the faces of the two participants in a return to the shot/reverse-shot structure comprised of Pat and Tiffany’s point-of-view shots. Danny tells Pat earlier during rehearsals, “You should be facing Tiffany”, and this dance sequence serves as the culmination of the film’s stylistic emphasis on the two protagonists being face to face. The connection between the two is key here, not how it appears to other people.

This dismissal of the audience is key to the film’s criticism of a certain kind of unhealthy pretense, an attack which is finally made manifest through the inclusion of the judges. The word “judge” is only used three times in the film to refer to anything other than the panelists at the competition, and in each of these instances it is associated with a negative kind of dishonesty that hypocritically surmises others. Tiffany chides Pat for his belief that she is more “crazy” than he is, telling him that he is a “hypocrite’ and an “asshole” because she “opened up” to him and he “judged” her. Tiffany, however, is more honest about and accepting of herself, telling Pat that “there’s always gonna be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that, with all the other parts of myself.” She asks him if he can say the same about himself, calling him a “fucker”.

Pat seems to learn this lesson from her, later asking Ronnie to “stop judging people” and telling him that he “judge[s] everybody” even though he’s the one with a messed-up marriage. He will also come to appreciate the importance of not judging people who “open up” to him, as shown by his admission to Tiffany that he feels he should go to the Eagles game for his father and indulge in his superstition (something previously criticised as a cover for his OCD) because Pat Sr. “opened up” to him and he thought it was “beautiful”. By the end of the film, the judges’ actual evaluation of their dance will matter to neither Tiffany nor Pat in the sense that would be expected by the majority of the onlookers. It only matters because it validates their decision to put their faith in the parlay, an act of faith rather than of pragmatism - a decision to believe in the “juju”.

The musical number at the end of the film, then, represents an honesty and a directness that is valorised as something heedless of exterior judgment. This is not to say, however, that the happy ending of the sequence represents a wholly realistic spectacle. There is, importantly, something of the healthy lie about it too. There is throughout the film an active refusal to countenance the notion of an unhappy ending, a decision that binds the two protagonists. This manifests itself most clearly in two scenes where each throws a book with an unhappy ending out of their home. Although Tiffany’s letter - which purports to come from Nikki - admits that the books on her high school syllabus “are great works of art that reflect how hard life can be and [that] can also help kids prepare themselves for the hardness of life”, Tiffany presents a different argument when The Lord of the Flies is brought into her dance studio. She argues that she does not want the book in her home and describes it as a power play against the “chubby little boy” whom other characters call Piggy (an act of judgment?). She laments that the characters are “really mean,” and that the novel features a murder. The reality it presents, she argues, shows a world where “humanity is just nasty and there’s no silver lining.” She throws the novel out of her front door.

That she has also written ‘Nikki’s’ thoughts on the books Pat is reading indicates that she is aware of the novel’s willingness to face the hardship of existence. This suggests that her act of throwing out the book stems from conscious decision-making rather than ignorance. Tiffany’s decision to throw The Lord of the Flies out amounts to an act of good faith, a search for a “silver lining” that chimes with Pat’s in both language, motivation, and action. An early scene with Pat shows him throwing a copy of A Farwell to Arms out of his bedroom window in a rage against a harsh realism associated with the hardship of his own experience. He wakes his parents at four in the morning to bemoan that the narrative presents a situation where “the whole time you’re rooting for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and be with the woman that he loves, Catherine Barkley.” He notes that the protagonist survives the war even after “getting blown up” (a word choice that allows for a link with Pat’s “explosions”) and escapes to Switzerland with a pregnant Catherine where they drink wine and dance. His words foreshadow the events of Silver Linings Playbook’s climax: “They both like to dance with each other, there’s scenes of them dancing, which was boring, but I liked it, because they were happy.” Pat is critical of the Hemingway because it chooses not to end at this point. The author “writes another ending” in which Catherine dies. Pat hates this, opining that “the world’s […] fucking hard enough as it is” and asking his parents if it’s possible for an author to “say, ‘Hey, let’s be positive. Let’s have a good ending to the story.”

Silver Linings Playbook unapologetically chooses to end soon after a scene of Pat and Tiffany dancing, when they’re happy. The film suggests that while pain and death, like violence, may very well be hard facts of existence, that doesn’t mean they need be dwelt upon right now. To close, it might be fruitful to invoke another cinematic love story released this year. Amour (2012) is an unflinching film concerned with showing and exploring two lovers’ journey towards and acceptance of death. The point of Silver Linings Playbook, however, is that it is very much not Amour. Whereas that film tells a painful and necessary truth, this one tells us it is telling a healthy and necessary lie.

This article was published on January 16, 2013.

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