A friend of mine once described Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day as a book about a man who doesn’t know that he’s in love. The same could be said of Silver Linings Playbook, the new film by David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter), except that this protagonist does know he’s in love: he just doesn’t know with whom.
Like Ishiguro’s novel, Silver Linings Playbook is essentially a story about a man coming to terms with himself: with the twists and turns his life has taken, with the things he could have had and lost, and with what he wants and whether he feels he deserves it. But where Ishiguro’s protagonist was looking back on his life from middle age, all opportunities at happiness wasted, Pat (Bradley Cooper in a revelatory performance) is still very much in the prime of life. His life is in a shambles, but he has, as he himself puts it, a shot at a silver lining. In order to get that shot, though, he needs to reorient his entire conception of himself. There is little more terrifying than realizing you are not the person you have always thought you were. The drama of the film derives primarily not from any exterior conflict between Pat and the other characters, but from two warring impulses within his psyche. Part of him wants very badly to face his fears and get better, while a larger part runs screaming in the opposite direction.
The external manifestation of Pat’s fears of self-realization is his obsession with his absent wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), whom he caught cheating on him with another teacher from the school where they both worked. After nearly beating the man to death, he was institutionalized for several months, put through many hours of therapy, and given medication for his previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder, though he avoided taking it. The movie begins with his mother (Jacki Weaver) checking him out and taking him home to continue his recovery under his parents’ supervision.
Everybody in the movie, except for Pat, knows that Nikki wants nothing more to do with him. Russell never attempts to give Pat’s delusions about the future of his marriage any patina of reality, and this frankness encourages the audience to draw conclusions about his real state of mind. Pat’s mania about Nikki is essentially his coping mechanism to deal with any sort of emotion that is too big, complicated, or upsetting for him to handle. As coping mechanisms go, this one is just about as bad as it gets, because it means that Pat’s default setting is miserable and angry – states of mind that do not, needless to say, endear him to strangers, or even his own family.
Pat is constantly deflecting: he’s seemingly incapable of looking an emotion in the face. His two major relationships in the film must progress, then, indirectly: when he meets Tiffany (the incandescent Jennifer Lawrence), who has her own history of mental health problems, he insists on framing his romantic interest in her as nothing more than a vehicle for his love of his wife. At first, it seems like Tiffany – who agrees to deliver clandestine letters from Pat to Nikki in exchange for Pat’s training for an amateur dance competition with her – is simply a surrogate for Nikki, but as the movie progresses it becomes increasingly clear that it is really Nikki who is a surrogate for Tiffany ... at least in Pat’s mind. He claims he’s only learning to dance with her to impress Nikki; in reality, Nikki is just a pretext for hours spent in Tiffany’s company.
His relationship with his father is equally slippery. The two men are startlingly alike: Cooper and Robert De Niro, who plays Pat Sr. (a role that requires him to produce real acting for the first time in recent memory), have remarkably similar mannerisms, and they share a slightly bombastic way of speaking that belies a seething underbelly of unbecoming rage. Pat Sr. was, we are meant to understand, a frightening father, a man who was permanently banned from his beloved Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium for getting into too many fights on the grounds. And, like his son, he is a master of deflection: if Pat filters everything through Nikki, his father does the same through the Eagles. But Pat Sr. is not the formidable young man he once was: he’s old, and he doesn’t seem too angry anymore; he seems tired. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and though he wants desperately to connect with his son, he doesn’t know how to do it without the pretext of football. He even manages to say as much: like Pat, he has some sense of his own deficiencies, but doesn’t really know how to change. Pat puts his father down because he’s frightened of being like him, but there are worse things than seeing your flaws for what they are and struggling to fix them.
But while it may be too late for Pat Sr. to dramatically alter his way of being, it is not too late for Pat. From the beginning of the movie he is able to admit to his therapist that his long-term struggles with undiagnosed bipolar disorder have been extremely difficult, and have made him crushingly lonely. But at that point he’s not ready to act on that admission. Though the journey is one he must ultimately take himself, he needs help along the way. And that help comes in the form of Tiffany. Though we don’t ever get to know Nikki, it’s pretty clear that Tiffany couldn’t be any less like her. She’s probably not the type of woman Pat would ever have been interested in before his diagnosis and institutionalization: if he had met her five years before, the sense of recognition would have scared him away.
But the blessing of fiction is such that he meets her at exactly the right time, and when he recognizes something of himself in her, he’s drawn to it. Tiffany is messy and damaged but tremblingly self-confident. As she says to Pat in one of their first confrontations, she actually likes herself, including the messy parts – “Can you say the same?” she asks, knowing full well that the answer is no. But as he watches her, he learns from her, and begins to grope toward something that looks a lot like happiness. And if doesn’t look much the version happiness he probably hoped for as a younger man, that’s all right: what he’s got is better than anything he could have imagined.