There’s a story that Gregor Piatigorsky, the great cellist, wrote about Pablo Casals, in which Piatigorsky performed for the great man, but was so nervous that he played horribly for him. What shocked Piatigorsky more, however, was how much Casals praised him for his awful playing.
A few years later, Piatigorsky was in Paris. So was Casals:
We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I played for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello, “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good…and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” he demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”
Silver Linings Playbook concerns itself with a man trying to find that “one wonderful phrase” in his day-to-day life. Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital. He suffers from bipolar disorder, which resulted in him almost killing his wife’s lover. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is dealing with the death of her husband, in addition to her own demons, by sleeping with people. These are both broken human beings who have trouble accepting the realities in front of them. Pat believes he will get back together with his wife, Nikki, despite the restraining order she has on him. Tiffany believes Pat is meant to be with her, despite the fact that he still loves and is married to Nikki. Then there is Pat, Sr. (Robert De Niro), who has a gambling problem and only spends time with Pat when he needs his luck for Eagles’ games; Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz), who is suffocating under his job and his marriage to Veronica (Julia Stiles), who happens to be Tiffany’s sister and friends with Nikki; and Danny (Chris Tucker), Pat’s friend from the institute who gets sent “back to Baltimore” twice before finally being released. You also have Jacki Weaver as Dolores, Pat’s mom, who has to put up with both her husband’s gambling and her son’s disorder. Tiffany’s parents likewise have to put up with her propensity for calling up men for sex when she feels depressed.
While the plot follows the conventions of a romantic comedy, one great strength of this film is that it doesn’t EXACTLY follow the conventions, and the performances and overlapping dialogue are so wonderful and honest and true that the choices these characters make seem like choices real people would make, and not ones made in the service of a plot. Even the supporting characters are good. Jacki Weaver is excellent, Robert De Niro shows off his range, and Chris Tucker shows that he has range. More important, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper create two believable, flawed, and lovable romantic leads. They have both been through trauma. They have both dealt with the trauma badly. When they first meet, you see the spark in their eyes. It’s what Tiffany would call “a feeling.” Pat ignores it while Tiffany embraces it, and in their back-and-forth dialogue, we sense their frustration with each other, but also their kindness. When Tiffany goes too far and accuses Pat of harassing her outside a movie theater, notice how the expression on her face changes from anger to concern when she realizes that Pat is about to lose control in front of a police officer (Shea Whigham) who has been assigned to keep an eye on him.
In fact, the success of the film is largely dependent on Jennifer Lawrence. From her first appearance onscreen, she is the protagonist, constantly pushing Pat to action and disrupting his daily routine. Only near the end of the film, where an unexpected development nudges Tiffany back into her old habits, does Pat become the protagonist. Throughout the film, her face is transparent in its emotions, whereas Pat is both more direct and more subtle in conveying his.
Are there flaws? Of course, but only in hindsight. When performances are this good in a film, you tend to believe all but the most incredulous of situations. Of course there is a fight at an Eagles’ game that Pat gets involved in. Of course there’s a dance competition that will decide everything (provided the Eagles win, too). Of course Danny has to be sent back to the mental hospital twice. But David O. Russell never makes the mistake of believing that this film is about the games or the dance competition or even mental illness. This movie is about people who are trying to put their lives back together. It’s about the people who are trying to help them. But mainly, it’s about learning to appreciate what we have — to see the shiny edges of the storm cloud, and embrace the storm.
Leave it to the ignorant and stupid to count the faults in this film. I only see the silver linings, for which we should all be grateful.
Postscript: I was originally going to see a new print of Sparrows on Tuesday night, but it got moved to a smaller venue, which promptly sold out. How ironic, then, that watching this movie was the silver lining to my night.