Silver Linings Playbook Won’t Win Best Picture — But it Should

Silver Linings Playbook won’t win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Maybe the award goes to Lincoln—the iconic cinematic masterpiece of noted method-acting savant Daniel-Day Lewis and brilliant director Steven Spielberg. Maybe it goes to Django Unchained, the latest in Quentin Tarantino’s perverse attempts to rewrite history and empower historical minorities in vigilante crusades against their oppressors. But it won’t go to Playbook. Playbook doesn’t have the inherent moral quandaries on display when white American audiences confront the uncomfortable realities of the Civil War; Playbook lacks the ability of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty to not-so-secretly tap into the American patriotic spirit at a time where the Great Recession and rising anti-Islamic sentiment make it easiest to do so. Playbook is a simple story of the human existence. Playbook is a tale of inherent imperfection and lives gone astray. Playbook is the personification of a city in struggle with itself. As it happens, Playbook is also the best movie of 2012.

The movie begins in a mental institution, with protagonist Pat Solitano (Cooper) on the way out. Cooper is better known for pushing the limits of debauchery in the Hangover films but delivers a phenomenal performance as the out-of-sorts Pat. Tripping over his own words, Pat’s eyes dart everywhere as he talks with an unfiltered tendency to speak his mind bluntly, almost always at the wrong time. His body jitters as he speaks, his mouth barely able to keep up with his mind on the ride home. Words spill out of his mouth slower than he can think of them as he articulates to his mother (Jackie Weaver) how he plans to win back his wife, Nikki (Bretta Bee) after eight months of separation.

Upon arriving home, the audience is given its first look at Pat Senior, an obsessive-compulsive Robert De Niro whose bond with the Philadelphia Eagles has long been his only connection to his son. A lifetime bookie, Senior’s neurotic superstitions have the real-life feel of serial gamblers. Constantly adjusting TV remotes and fastidiously dictates game-day outfits and viewing locations for the rest of the family, De Niro’s past—he was banned from Lincoln Financial Field for participation in too many brawls—sets the scene for the on-edge Senior, whose idea of parenting alternates between verbal castigation of Junior and vulgar mutterings about the ‘juju’ Pat upsets when he doesn’t adhere to Senior’s game-day rituals.

By contrast, Cooper’s bipolar Pat, institutionalized after discovering Nikki carrying out an affair with a fellow teacher and bludgeoning the man to the point of death, is the pinnacle of unabashed optimism. Repeating his institutional motto, excelsior (“ever upward”), under his breath, Pat tries to stave off his violent mood swings with a commitment to self-betterment on which he hangs his hope of reuniting with Nikki. Pat dons trash bags in his incessant jogging around his neighborhood in an effort to perfect his physique, reading through the contents of Nikki’s English syllabus to better his mind.

However, the movie’s most compelling character is an in-form Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence, already an Academy Award nominee for her performance in Winter’s Bone, plays Tiffany, a neurotic twenty-something whose husband’s death prompted both mental issues and promiscuity, throwing her into both prescription drugs and her coworkers. Tiffany and Pat meet over dinner at a friend’s house and their edgy relationship is what makes Playbook tick. Lawrence’s brusque comfort with her sexuality stuns Pat, who is simultaneously taken aback and drawn in by her frankness about sex. He probes and probes about her sex life, a perverse vicarious enjoyment of her thrills becoming the early foundation for the friendship. Both are quick with the tongue and blessed with a shared tendency to say the wrong things at the wrong times—while eating at a diner, Pat calls Tiffany that “married-to-a-dead-guy slut”—but, with a series of F-bombs in tow, they share in their discomfort, partners in pulling each other up out of the gloom.

Lawrence dominates every scene she plays, mixing a brute sexuality with an in-your-face persona that is the perfect complement to Cooper’s desperate optimism. Tiffany is the girl who walks all over you but who knows at the end of the day, you’ll still be waiting on her. She walks the careful line between exposed emotion and guarded rage; as likely to open her arms as to slug you in the face. Director David O. Russell does his part here too, flying her in from off the screen as she violently almost slams into Pat multiple times on his runs.

The core of the movie’s plot is Tiffany exploiting Pat’s desire to get back with Nikki to convince him to help her with a dance performance. She promises to give Nikki Pat’s handwritten notes if he works with her to prepare and perform. As the movie progresses, the performance is added to the outcome of an Eagles game in one of Senior’s gambles during a misplaced wager that ends up with Senior’s life savings on the line.

 This is Philly Fandom

At its core, Playbook is a hybrid glorified romantic comedy and drama that takes itself none too seriously. Much like in The Fighter—where Russell brought together characters that personified the town of Lowell, Massachusetts—the director creates a set of personas that masterfully reflect this suburb of Philadelphia. The movie is gritty and safely middle-class, cast with a set of struggling characters for whom the tale is one of incomplete redemption. The Eagles obsession is perfectly scripted and Russell does a tremendous job in bringing the “dedicated fan” persona to life; the subtle subplots of the movie, while lost on many non-sports fans, reinforce a narrative of struggle in the face of adversity.

Pat is pictured multiple times in a DeSean Jackson jersey—a not-so-subtle comparison to one of the NFL’s most talented players whose struggles to live up to his potential and questionable mental commitment are his two most notorious traits. In the midst of a rant against Junior, De Niro’s character brings up the comparison, citing Jackson’s most famous failure—dropping the ball right before crossing the goal line. The reference conjures up the common Playbook motif (and, coincidentally, one of Philadelphia sports as well) of falling short at the final, crucial moment. The characters’ emotions revolve around the Eagles, with Senior’s moody castigations of his son revolving around the football team’s collapse. The struggles of his fandom are impeccably illustrated; the superstitions and game day traditions are genuine and realistic.

Tiffany’s confrontation with Senior after he accuses her of bringing bad karma to the household is the best scene of the movie. In the words of Grantland’s Zach Baron: “What is the delicate way to say this? Jennifer Lawrence angrily rattling off select Eagles victories and highlights from the Phillies’ 2008 championship run, score after score, game after game? If you perhaps happen to be from Philly you might have a heart attack right there in the theater.”

 The Case for Silver Linings Playbook

What makes Playbook truly special is simply how real the movie feels. Pat’s unabashed optimism is balanced out by fits of rage and sadness—his struggles with bipolarity manifest themselves in violent altercations with his mother and sobbing breakdowns on his bed. Jacki Weaver is spectacular as the loving mother; her pain at watching her beloved son struggle with misplaced affection for a woman that made a cuckold out of him is palpable.

The dialogue is constantly spot-on. Senior’s frustrations to understand the mental issues his son faces are a clear manifest of repressed sadness. The axis the movie revolves around, Pat’s relationship with Tiffany, is carefully scripted as the growing relationship of reluctant friends thrown together by shared circumstances. Pat’s almost childish blindness to his dance partner’s affection for him is the simultaneously most endearing and frustrating part of his character. The two are joined in by their combined effort to better themselves, to—much like Wahlberg in The Fighter—take themselves off the mat and restart a life they thought had already ended.

The problems that the characters face don’t feel forced or illegitimate. Playbook lacks the classic Hollywood dichotomy of rich characters facing petty marital strife while raising iPhones to their ears and opening MacBooks on their knees. It’s frustration on Pat’s face when—much like jersey-sake Jackson—he tries to do the right thing but falls short once again. It’s the way Tiffany hangs on to the dance performance as her self-described only connection to real life. It’s Pat’s perverse interest in Tiffany’s promiscuity, his curiosity giving way to earnest judgment that meshes well with his puerile inability to grasp the complex dynamics of situations. It’s the way Tiffany runs from Pat when she grows conscious of her deception, throwing herself back into alcohol in search of solace. It’s the tirade Pat throws in the waiting room of his psychologist (Anupam Kher) when he hears the song that reminds him of his wife, a release of pent-up emotion that takes him from toppling over a bookcase to sobbing in the corner in a span of less than a minute.

Supporting characters like Kher’s and Chris Tucker’s (playing Pat’s friend Danny) give the movie flavor with spirited performances. In their own way, each character is held afloat by the others—their frayed and exposed nerves supported by a growing network of characters that rises and falls (as the movie does) with the Eagles. Perfectly playing the temperament of Philadelphia, Russell’s casting is excellent.

The last scene of the movie, where Tiffany and Pat finally compete in their dance competition, is an iconic summation of what Playbook represents. Beautiful cinematography characterizes a dynamic performance by the two dancers, who fall down in the middle but regroup in nailing the final move that had eluded them during practice. Needing only a combined 5.0 score to win Senior’s bet, the Solitanos gather around in anticipation. As the scores are read off, centered around the necessary margin, a fellow dancer leans over and offers a consoling “I’m sorry” to Pat and Tiffany, who explode in ecstasy as the final score—a 5.2 giving them a 5.0 average—is revealed. As the two celebrate, joined by friends and family in almost a cast-wide embrace while the rest of the room awkwardly stays silent, we see the iconic moment of Playbook. They aren’t perfect—judging by the hostile looks of the audience, they aren’t even decent—but in progress has come redemption for a desperate group of characters whose faults, trivial the aphorism may be, have made them stronger. The feel-good overtones are pure Hollywood, but the genuine feel is not. Many popular movies in 2012 (Prometheus, the Avengers, the Dark Knight Rises) found a lot of success telling stories about the supernatural but Playbook is a different kind of spectacle. It is a story about what it means to be human and the struggles of companionship. A story that won’t win the Oscar but is as deserving as those that will.

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