[NOTE: For those who care about such things, be aware that this commentary might contain spoilers]
I led a discussion of Silver Linings Playbook at The Grand Cinema Theater yesterday afternoon. In the course of preparing for that discussion I watched the film twice, once at a screening earlier in the week and a second along with the audience at The Grand just prior to our discussion. My impressions of the film following the second viewing and participating in the discussion were more positive than they were following my initial viewing. I will expound here on some of the reasons for my initial disappointment as well as what led to my upgraded assessment following a second playback viewing.
I appreciate, and often enjoy, a well-done sentimental film that tugs at my heartstrings, or brings a lump to my throat or a tear to my eye. And of course it is always satisfying, and fun, to see the “guy get the girl, or vice versa” at the end of a romantic comedy. However, the sentimentality has to be done genuinely as an integral part of the film plot or character development; not simply as a Hollywood style sappy ending added onto the end of a movie where it does not fit.
Following my first viewing of Silver Linings Playbook, the ending (partially) spoiled my enjoyment of the overall film. In order to enjoy, rather than be annoyed by, the ending, the viewer has to repress memories of many scenes seen during the first half of the film. Consider the following actions of the main character, Pat: He almost caused a potentially serious automobile accident when he grabbed the steering wheel from his mother while being driven home from a mental institution; he impulsively hurled a book he was reading through a windowpane out into the street when he did not like the way it ended; He woke his parents up in the middle of the night to lecture them while pacing manically in their bedroom; He struck his mother and punched his father during an emotional outburst; He knocked over a magazine rack during an emotional outburst in his psychiatrist’s office; He frightened a teacher when he visited the school where his wife used to work, despite a court restraining order stating that he was not supposed to be within 500 yards of that school, and we learn from a police officer that he had also violated his restraining order by visiting the house where he and his wife used to live; etc, etc. Numerous scenes such as these in the first half of the film make it abundantly clear that Pat not only has a serious mental disorder (we are informed he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder), but is also sometimes a menacing presence, and potentially dangerous. These scenes created (at least in me) a feeling of sitting on the edge of my seat out of concern about what Pat might do next.
Next consider the impression of Pat one is left with during the final scenes in the movie. He is, arguably, the most “together, with-it, emotionally stable” person in the film at this point. He exhibits deep empathy and understanding of the needs and motivations of those around him, has incredible emotional control even while some of the other characters are falling apart, has reconciled with his family, has completely resolved any lingering anger issues and obsessions related to his former estranged wife, has fallen in love with his dance partner,Tiffany, and it appears the two of them are ready to live happy ever after! [romantic music cued, a final embrace and romantic kiss – tears running down viewers cheeks as the closing credits start to scroll].
So, an inquiring mind might ask, What happened in the middle of the film to allow us film viewers to make sense of this rather dramatic transition? The short answer is, nothing. And this is the conundrum confronting any serious film viewer who wants to try to make sense out of this film. I see three possibilities in terms of how to both enjoy the many positive aspects of this film (very very funny screenplay amplified by excellent acting by each of the individual actors, outstanding ensemble acting; and expert use of music, camera work and editing to create and modulate mood throughout film), with the potential game-breaker problem of trying to reconcile the ending of the film with its opening scenes.
Solution number 1 (the one I tried to implement after my first viewing) is to simply not worry about trying to maintain/construct continuity – simply go with the flow and enjoy the film. If one allows the director/screenwriter to simply lead one along, forgetting about continuity with what has gone on before and focusing only on what is happening at the moment, one perhaps ends up with a “feel good” state of mind when leaving the theater. And there is not anything, necessarily, wrong with approaching the movie from that perspective. It might even be akin to getting to watch a double feature for the price of one movie! – Go see a serious dramatic-comedy about family dynamics associated with bipolar disorder followed by a second screwball romantic comedy, and enjoy both. Approaching the film that way is perhaps easy for viewers whose film tastes have been shaped solely by Hollywood films. However, the difficulty with that approach for a cinephile is that it makes it hard to take the film seriously. One of the professional reviewers of the film that I read online somewhere summarized the problem aptly with a quip that, enjoying the ending of this film requires a suspension of disbelief. Personally, I had a hard time doing that following my first viewing.
The second solution is to look more carefully at what happens in the middle of the film to try to discern some plausible mechanism that might account for the transition of the main character. A facetious way to achieve this solution is to simply assume that a “miracle” happens somewhere in the middle of the film – perhaps a miraculous dancing therapy cure for bipolar disorder. A somewhat more serious variation on this solution (suggested by several who attended the discussion of the film at The Grand) was that Pat was “off” his medications in the first half of the film (and there is substantial evidence consistent with this presented in the film), but came into compliance somewhere in the middle of the film (I don’t think there was any evidence of this presented explicitly in the film, but I can’t recall any contrary evidence either). As a retired academic psychologist, I don’t personally find this interpretation to be very plausible, but I can appreciate that it is a possible solution that works for some viewers of this film. Since the discussion of the film yesterday, I have been trying out this solution in my own head, and find that it works, for me, better than solution number 1, despite the fact that the scientist-in-me is screaming, This ending will never last – Pat will relapse, and probably sooner than later! And that brings me to my third, and preferred, solution.
I am struck by an early scene in the film during which Pat becomes upset while reading Hemingway’s novel, Farewell to Arms. The reason he is upset is because Hemingway did not end the novel at the point at which the main characters had achieved happiness and were dancing. Hemingway insisted on continuing the novel, and of course it ended in tragedy. Sound familiar? When we reach the point in the movie where the characters have danced and reached happiness, the film ends. Those of us who want to take the film seriously can assume that if we were to follow the story beyond the closing credits, Pat will soon go back off his meds, be back to his menacing, dangerous, obsessive, manic-depressive ways, and ultimately there will not be a happy ending. On the other hand, those film viewers who have no interest in trying to make sense of the film or take it seriously will simply enjoy it the way it ends at the closing credits. There is a part of me that thinks this is a solution that is “too-clever-by-half”, but another part of me has to agree with those critics who characterize this film as “a mess, but a mess that works’.