Nearly every awards season a small(ish) indie film with a small(ish) budget, originally released to only a handful of large cities, begins picking up buzz and winds up beating movies with much bigger pedigrees for Oscar’s highest honor. In 2012, it was the French black-and-white silent film, The Artist, which dominated entries by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen; in 2011, it was the charming stuttering story, The King’s Speech, which took out Christopher Nolan’s behemoth Inception; and in 2010 it was The Hurt Locker, which trounced the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar.
Given the Golden Globes and critics’ choice awards it’s already racked up, and its slow but steady climb up the box-office charts, this year that film could very well be Silver Linings Playbook (rated R for language and brief nudity depicting infidelity).
Through the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former high-school history teacher who’s spent the last eight months in a mental institution for nearly beating his wife’s lover to death, Silver Linings Playbook subtly explores our American affinity for self-improvement programs. True to the pop-philosophies of the Norman Vincent Peales and Tony Robbinses, Pat looks at every crumbling foundation in his life as an opportunity to find the winner within. His wife is having sex with another man? Why, that’s the perfect motivation to work on his physique! She sold their house and took out a restraining order against him? What better way for them to develop greater love for one another than to have some time apart!
Pat deeply absorbs all the catchphrases of positivity—“Excelsior” (in Latin, forever upward) is his mantra—yet his determination to find the up-side to every situation leaves him stagnated, refusing to acknowledge that his wife has abandoned him. The explosive cracks we soon see in his optimistic armor suggest his personal affirmations are actually feeding his bipolar obsessions rather than relieving them. But when Pat runs (literally) into his recently widowed neighbor, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), he finds all his notions about life and how to live it challenged.
Brash, bold, and seemingly at ease with herself, Tiffany represents the other end of the psychological spectrum. “I was a slut,” she explains of her promiscuous past, “and there will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy. I like that about myself.” Of course, “liking that about herself” reveals the new cultural wisdom that is sometimes even parroted from the pulpit. Rather than trying to will herself to change like Pat, Tiffany chooses to embrace who she is. Except that it’s perfectly clear that she doesn’t really like that part of herself—the part that fills her loneliness with empty sexual encounters—or she wouldn’t work so hard to change it.
There’s an immense difference between accepting the grace that can wash away a dirty, sloppy past and claiming to accept and celebrate our dirty, sloppy selves. Throughout it all, neither Pat nor Tiffany (nor any of the troubled friends and family members surrounding them) hit on the only real solution to their crises—submitting to the One who can transform the dirty, sloppy old man into someone clean and new.
Thanks to some truly terrific acting and amusing subplots with Pat’s parents (Robert DeNiro and Jackie Weaver), the story works. Yet the fact that Tiffany supposedly exemplifies the healthier mental state suggests that Silver Linings Playbook isn’t quite as dubious of fluffy psych trends as it pretends. In the end, it offers a feel-good solution to both Pat and Tiffany’s problems that is as warm, fuzzy, and utterly fantastical as the faulty methods they rely on early in the film.