Silver Linings, No Books
For those of us interested in the relationship between film and literature, Silver Linings Playbook begins promisingly enough. Based on a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick in which the mentally ill central character, Pat believes his life is a movie directed by God, the film is structured around engagements with an array of classic pieces of 20th century literature. The beginning of the narrative invokes, of course, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1950), in which Holden Caulfield relates his hatred of “phonies” from the confines of a mental institution. Perhaps the greatest piece of fiction to remain completely un-adapted by the cinema, The Catcher in the Rye gets one-upped by Silver Linings Playbook, a film full of its share of phonies, not the least of whom are the filmmakers themselves.
At the beginning of the film, Pat (Bradley Cooper) relates to his friend’s sister-in-law, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) how he came to be relegated to a mental hospital. Coming home from his job as a history teacher, he found his wife, an English teacher, in the shower with another man. He beat the adulterer near to death. Now, to atone for his violent past, the newly released Pat decides to read all of the books on his wife’s high school English syllabus, in an attempt to win her back.
Pat’s first night home, he reads Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) in one sitting, finally finishing at 4am. Outraged at the ending of the novel, Pat hurls the book out of his window, shattering the glass, waking up his distraught parents. Pat bursts into their bedroom, hysterically critiquing Hemingway’s tragedy. Fixated on reuniting with his wife Nikki, Pat interprets the bleak ending of A Farewell to Arms—the stillbirth of Henry and Catherine’s baby, and the subsequent death of Catherine—as foreboding the end of his marriage to Nikki. Instead, Pat demands that the philosophy of optimism he learned in the hospital—“excelsior!”—be matched by the novels he reads. Here, not only is Hemingway comically exorcised, but also A Catcher in the Rye and Ken Kesey’s anti-authoritarian, countercultural One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), for that matter. For all of the Weinsteins’ and director David O. Russell’s pretensions to be making “independent” cinema, their work remains committed to bland, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy.
Later in the film, another novel is excoriated, but this time by Tiffany. Pat brings his copy of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) to her house. Because he is supposed to be practicing their dance routine, she also throws the book out of her house, delivering a similarly blistering critique as his revulsion at Hemingway. She explains that the novel concerns only boys stranded on an island, treating the fat Piggy reprehensibly. So, what gives with all of this tossing of novels—literally and symbolically—especially in a film named after a book?
Alas, nothing good. The book of the film’s title merely reinforces its anti-intellectualism. Despite Tiffany’s rejection of her fellow Americans’ fascination with football, she turns out to be the worst of the bunch. When the football playbook of the film’s title never materializes—a guide to the plays which will lead to a non-Hemingway ending for Pat—Tiffany takes it upon herself to “read the signs” anew, endearing herself to Pat’s father (Robert De Niro), explaining that her close contact with his son is in fact not destroying their beloved Philadelphia Eagles’ success in the 2008 football season, but instead is a good luck charm for the team. Indeed, Tiffany is the film’s most important author, having forged a letter from Nikki in an attempt to convince Pat to move on with his life, a stratagem which in fact does ultimately lead to the silver lining in their seemingly doomed lives. At film’s end, like any other ordinary romantic comedy, Pat and Tiffany do live happily ever after.
What’s striking about Silver Linings Playbook is how deliberately it ridicules the life of the mind in lieu of a life attendant upon athletic activity, that is, the cornerstone of American anti-intellectualism. The teachers who assign books for students to read are adulterers (Nikki and her lover) and violent maniacs (Pat). Both Pat’s and Tiffany’s recoveries involve intense physical activity double-layered with football. The film’s climax converges around these interests. Pat Sr. literally parlay bets his family’s future, needing both the Eagles to win, and Pat Jr. and Tiffany to score a respectable 5 out of 10 at a “Dancing with the Stars” fundraising event in Philadelphia. Both football and dancing teams do their job, and all ends well. Indeed, ultimately there is no book at all within this film’s play with silver linings. For those of us for whom literary art is, along with the filmic, the sustenance of our lives, this is both inexplicable and inexcusable.
– Walter Metz