Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.
“Silver Linings Playbook,” the new David O. Russell movie, starts off by making the audience uncomfortable. We want to like Pat (Bradley Cooper). We root for him to overcome the internal demons that landed him in a mental hospital for eight months. We do like him. But he keeps doing things we don’t like. He is socially insensitive and often offensive, utterly absorbed in his own deluded ideas and obsessions, and although we know that these emanate from his psychiatric condition, it’s impossible to separate the personal from the psychiatric. He is his mental illness, and it’s often not pretty. We’re actually glad to see the cop who shows up to enforce the restraining order. (Usually in American films, when a uniformed cop restrains the hero, the moral question is so clear the cop might as well be wearing a Nazi uniform.)
At some point, the film takes a turn away from the complicated and difficult. It calls on a smooth, familiar recipe and gives us comfort food — sweet chocolate pudding, spoonful after spoonful. It’s made from good chocolate, but it’s predictable pudding nonetheless.
It all leads up to a climactic scene that we all know from countless other movies. In this case, it’s a ballroom dancing competition:
The movie plays on one long-standing idea in American movies and TV: all moral questions, all questions of character, can be settled in a contest. Typically, the story sets out some difficulties for the hero — conflicts with the society, conflicts with some other person or organization, conflicts within himself. It all leads up to some climactic contest. Usually the hero wins, occasionally he loses. But the outcome doesn’t matter so much as the nobility of the fight, for win or lose, the hero has fought, and that seems to resolve all issues. Rocky is the obvious example…
That’s from six years ago in one of the first posts on this blog. (I’ve edited it lightly.) That post was about the first episode of Friday Night Lights. But it could have been about “Silver Linings Playbook” — “Rocky” meets “Dancing With the Stars.”
For a nearly complete plot summary, watch the trailer.
The contest seems to melt all problems no matter how complicated, no matter how seemingly unrelated to the competition itself – problems between a man and a woman, a son and father, friend and friend.
“Silver Linings Playbook” hits all three of those plus husband and wife, brother and brother, and maybe some others. Other seemingly insoluble problems – from Pat’s obsession with his estranged wife to the side effects of medications – vanish. And in case the pudding wasn’t already sweet enough, there’s an added Hollywood-ending bonus involving a large bet on the Cowboys-Eagles game, an outcome so predictable I’m not even putting in a spoiler warning.
And they all live happily ever after.
These themes are not inherent in movie contests. In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system. But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems.
Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.
lambdaphage — January 5, 2013
What a dreadful invention of American film that characters in a dramatic work should vie with each other in a competition.
Ted_Howard — January 5, 2013
I have artistic issues with Silver Linings Playbook. I don't want to do an entire analysis, but the film was great until it started to descend into standard Hollywood sap. If you look at the two characters behaviors and actions, they didn't deserve a happy ending. Both of their personalities are clearly self-destructive, the ending was a lie. As much as we might want a happy ending, the characters didn't deserve it. Go watch John Cassavetes' masterpiece "A Woman Under the Influence." There is no happy ending in that film, no last minute fix to the defects of Mabel and Nick. The film ends in melancholy, as is right, as is honest. "Silver Linings Playbook" ruined a great film by serving up a lie right at the end.
But let me confront your most specific point - the idea that Americans uniquely use competition as a means to resolving all your problems. This isn't true at all, you are just cherry-picking. What you have done here is taken one of the finest British films ("This Sporting Life") and compared it to Hollywood sap like Rocky. If you want to be fair, either compare sap to sap or art to art, but don't go back and forth. Great art doesn't always have happy endings and easy fixes - Hollywood almost always does. "Downhill Racer" makes a mockery of happy-competition endings by showing how destructive narcissistic ambition can be. Even though Chappelet wins in the end, it's not a happy ending - it's more like examining an existential crisis. King Vidor's "The Champ" (1931) shows a man driven to win as a boxer, but the competition is merely a side-show, it's just a vehicle for the main character to finally make his only son proud of his father for accomplishing anything (the father is a washed up gambling alcoholic in the film). The competition doesn't provide a fix, but it's a vehicle for the character's own emotional arc. Compare "Raging Bull" to "Rocky"? Does the competition Jake LaMotta faces work as a magic fix? Even the recent, quite successful, American dance film "Black Swan" doesn't paint a nice picture of how competition fixes everything. Nina's competition with herself (for perfection) and her competition with Lily doesn't fulfill her. Her competitive quest for perfection drives her to insanity and eventual death. I could go on-and-on delving into American cinema, but I'll stop because I think I made my point. You are comparing art cinema of Britain with Hollywood.
oofstar — January 5, 2013
i'm not sure that there aren't american movies that have competitions in them that don't end up solving problems, though it is definitely a trope.
but more importantly, does this movie take place in philadelphia? there's not one philadelphia accent in that movie. if this took place in new orleans, folks'd have accents. why do movies and tv hate philadelphia accents so much?
eta: or boston! boston movies are full of boston accents.
Mouse — January 5, 2013
This reminded me of an article I read once talking about how in literature, westerners usually are taught conflict and resolution as the defining structure of a work. I'm sure we're all familiar with the inverted checkmark style of set up, rising action, climax, conflict resolution. The article pointed out how other cultures use juxtaposition to add interest instead of conflict. It really made me think about just how much our media relies on some inherent conflict, either between two parties, internally, etc; and that in conflict there always has to be a winner, even when real life conflicts often nobody comes out unscathed. It is not an inherently bad structure, but I think a lot of the time media goes for the fairytale/fan fiction ending and misses an opportunity to talk about deeper issues.
Here's the only link I could find, please excuse the language.
Christian Clarkson — January 5, 2013
This post reminds me of my dissatisfaction with the French film 'Il y a longtemps que je t'aime' (I've loved you so long) with Kristen Scott-Thomas. All you know, to start with, is that Scott-Thomas's character has just come out of prison for killing her own son. And yet you like her, you root for her as you watch her rebuild her life and her relationship with her sister. The ending (where - spoiler - you discover that she only killed her son because she discovered he had a terminal illness) seems like a total cop-out to me. You relax in the knowledge that she's a 'good person' (in comparison to what you thought before, anyway) instead of confronting all those mixed feeling you had before.
Mattandelissa — January 6, 2013
Counter example: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
molochmachine — January 6, 2013
Would "Saturday Night Fever" count as an exception to this trend?
Anna — January 6, 2013
"But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the
pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. –
competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all
personal and interpersonal problems."
Strongly disagree. Mattandelissa's example is excellent. And even if you just focus sports or athlete-themed films - a genre where competition will invariably be a theme - there are a lot of counterexamples. These are just the ones I can come up with at the top of my head:
On the Waterfront
Friday Night Lights (both the movie and the television series)
I assure you that "comfort food" movies are rampantly produced worldwide, they just usually fail to benefit from the heavy marketing and distribution that Hollywood studios can afford.
Melissa Kenfield — January 7, 2013
This packaged tension in a competition is an event that symbolizes everything the character is battling internally. The book "Silver Linings Playbook" is packed with his internal struggles, but that's the beauty of the medium. The movie can do this a bit, but to adapt it to the big screen you have to focus on the visual.
The competition - both the sports and the dance - uniting all these forces and bringing about a more loving and (dare I say) functional family dynamic - isn't that our fantasy at its finest? Tooth-rotting sweetness, perhaps, but we know that he didn't get to the end of that without hours and hours of tiring work and discipline. I don't think that the competition itself melted all the problems, but it's the focal point and really drove all the other interactions needed to bring healing. The family didn't unite because of a dance; they united because a member of their clan had devoted himself to something he was passionate about and at their core they loved him for that.
@Ted_Howard: yes, the characters didn't deserve a happy ending. But nobody does. We've all done some pretty nasty stuff to other people, intentional or not. What we see in both main characters is that they admitted that they were broken people seeking healing. What if Pat hadn't been fighting to get better in the vain hope of reconcilliation with his wife? Would he have stayed in the hospital an obese and psychotic mess?
Something that the the book expressly states - the movie hints at it but can't be so clear - is the understanding by our protaganist that the ex-wife is now, to use a phrase that I detest, out of his league. He's lost out on his true love and now he's going to pursue a relationship with a woman who has some pretty intense scars. He knows it's going to be harder, but that's the price he's paid for his mistakes. He does have a happy ending, though it's not as happy as he first wanted.
mimimur — January 7, 2013
Another interesting thing is that he is established to have a severe problem with agression, and she's depressed and promiscuous - but most of the trailer is about how bad she is for him? He's a "guy with a problem" that landed him in the justice system, but she's the "crazy b-h"?
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Nick — October 29, 2019
Gosh! I had almost the same thoughts about silver lining playbooks. I am not discounting the performances - they are top notch. But, does the movie really merit all the Oscars it boasts of now? The Hollywood cliches were subtly baked into the storyline. However, the Marvels have dragged the bar so far down, everything seems art in comparison. I don't know. I am not a critique (not a paid one to say the least). But, I am entitled to my opinions as the audience. I watch a great deal of movies and I have found some really great apps here with loads of content: https://www.toptvtricks.com/best-fire-stick-apps/