Crabby Snacks and Home-Mades
So here’s a refreshingly upfront framework for the movie manboy: at the start of Silver Linings Playbook, Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from a psychiatric hospital. He’s damaged, still, and unsteady, but his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) is determined to get him out. “I don’t want him to get used to the routine here,” she instructs an intern who looks about to stop her. “Eight months is enough.”
Dolores’ reasoning seems right, on its face. No one wants to become used to such routine if he has a mother who might look after him. But it’s only a few minutes before you’re rethinking: on arriving home, he’s duly discovered by his father, Pat Senior (Robert De Niro), who raises questions twice over. First, he’s not been consulted on the release, and even wonders about its legality, and second, well, he’s plainly damaged and unsteady himself, a very likely model and cause of his son’s trouble. It’s a cleverly knotted state of affairs, an entire familial history of summarized in a moment, when dad reveals that Pat’s wife is “gone” and so he needs to move on, specifically, to the couch on Sunday, so he can bestow good juju on the Eagles, dad’s team.
It’s this detail that makes Pat different from the many other movie manboys you’ve seen in the past couple of years. That is, he’s not just an endearing comic individual waiting to be saved by a good woman, but instead embodies a kind of pervasive cultural pathology. He’s comic in his way, but he brings the menace too, and more convincingly than the looney-tuney Cable Guy. In part, this convincing but not completely repulsive menace is a tribute to Cooper, who makes Pat’s veering from desperation to delusion to earnest self-reflection at least vaguely complex and often charismatic: you’d like to see him sort out his demons, if only because he’s trying so hard to do it.
Based on Matthew Quick’s novel, director David O. Russell’s screenplay makes the most of the father-son business, which is to say, it digs into the Pats’ shared pathology. Here dad’s devotion to the Eagles is rather a perfect emblem. Even apart from his obsession with stats and records, Pat Senior is a believer in juju: he lines up his remotes just so, he keeps a green bandana in his hand during each game, he positions his son and assorted friends—including Pat’s facility buddy Danny (Chris Tucker)—on overstuffed furniture just so, in order to create the force field he believes will produce positive plays. You come to understand both the depth of his devotion and its limits when you learn he’s been banned from Lincoln Financial Field owing to some undisclosed incident and also that during Pat Junior’s absence he’s been supporting the household by running bets. Sure, he wants to make enough cash at some point to start the restaurant he’s been talking about for years, but the only way to do that, as he sees it, is to bet on his Eagles as they win.
Pat Junior is well aware of his father’s troubles, of course, and might even, in another world, like to help Dolores deal with them (beyond her efforts to bring them together over game day treats, her “crabby snacks and home-mades”). But Pat’s got his own version of his father’s troubles, namely, a tendency to violence and obsessiveness and narcissism. And so when he’s released, he’s focused on winning back Nikki (Brea Bee), his high school English teacher wife who cheating on his scary ass with a history teacher. Even as he sets to reading all the books on her syllabus, Pat can’t keep from replaying the moment he discovered the affair, a replaying that shows up here as point-of-view flashback: arriving home early one afternoon, he sees strewn underwear and then the naked couple in his shower; at this point the point-of-view is expanded so that you might wince at the vehemence with which he beats the history teacher nearly to death and thus lands himself in the facility.
Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) suggests that Pat come up with a strategy to deal with life outside that facility, including a commitment to his meds schedule. But still, Pat is repeatedly beset by triggers he can’t quite anticipate, as when he hears the song that accompanied his long walk to the shower that afternoon (indeed, his wedding song, “My Cherie Amour”) or when he reads in Hemingway that Catherine dies. Each seems an unbearable injustice, sending Pat into sputtering and very paroxysms, annoying his neighbors who call Officer Keogh (the wonderful Dash Mihok), who doesn’t want to haul Pat down to the station, but really, he has a community to think about.
That community is left mostly to the background here, houses across the street with lights that pop on at night, cars passing at slow suburban speeds, and the extra-hardworking principal (Patsy Meck) at Nikki’s school who is wholly petrified to see Pat show up on a Sunday. The community member who takes up a bit more space on screen is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), sister to his wife’s best friend Veronica (Julia Stiles). While Veronica adheres to the restraining order Nikki has for Pat, and not help him contact her or even know where she is, Tiffany appears to be a little more adventurous when it comes to law-breaking.
The widow of a cop who died in a tragic accident, Tiffany has a reputation for sleeping around (while suffering from grief and depression, she doesn’t quite explain), and so Pat judges her summarily. You on the other hand, knowing how these plots work, anticipate their romance. It’s remarkably helpful that their route toward that end is framed by the father-son business, and more cleverly, by its offshoot Eagles business. Some of this is roundabout, as Tiffany exacts a promise from Pat to be her partner in a dance contest, which means they spend hours rehearsing and sweating and pondering, never very good at what they do, even as they might be engendering fond memories for Veronica, or any of us who remember an earlier incarnation of Stiles doing just this, in the sublimely silly Save the Last Dance.
As in that teenage-musicy melodrama, the point of the dancing is not the dancing, but the new perspective the dancing constructs, not only for Pat and Tiffany, but also for everybody else who comes near them. Again and again, they dance, awkwardly, earnestly, and charmingly. During a session where they’re instructed by Danny (who predictably suggests Tiffany swing her hips and Pat “put some black in it”), you’re aware of both their lack of skill and the great fun they’re having, their mutual commitment and the ways that they reinforce one another’s sense of themselves. This applies also to Pat Senior and Pat Junior, and, no small thing, Pat Senior and Tiffany, as they negotiate their comprehension of the Eagles.
It’s a happy circumstance that Silver Linings Playbook goes back to the Eagles for its resolution, if only because it’s a metaphor that can work in simultaneously subtle and ridiculous ways. A face-painted boys’ showdown in the stadium arena is broadly drawn and wearisome, but Tiffany’s rundown of the season’s record and its resonance for her romance with Pat is frankly awesome. Both have to do with mythology, with the means by which individuals might perform their interest in each other and demonstrate their worthiness. This isn’t so much about the Eagles, at least not any more than Captain Said’s (Said Taghmaoui) speech about Michael Jackson in Russell’s Three Kings is about Michael Jackson. But it’s about how relationships work, how fear and desire and faith sustain the mythologies that sustain us.