What does genre matter?: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook – or Silver Linings, as it apparently prefers to be called – is the surprise hit of the month, most notably for its depth despite its “romantic comedy” status. But the reality is that it’s just as easy to look at the film as a straight-up drama with the odd romantic and comedic overtone. Much has been written (including a nice review here on Yuppee) about the film that has come seemingly from nowhere to suddenly appearing everywhere in an attempt to dissect just whether the hype is deserved.

This much is true: the performances are the best thing about it. That’s not to knock the rest of the film – it’s meant in an entirely positive way. The casting is very intelligent; it puts De Niro in a supporting role in which he’s able to deliver a very solid performance, alongside on-screen wife played by the wonderful Jacki Weaver who shot to prominence after stealing the show (along with Ben Mendelsohn) in last year’s superb crime family hit from Australia – Animal Kingdom. But the standouts here are the presence of the two leads: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

Yet whilst these two ‘carry’ a film that seems to need no real carrying because of the talent surrounding them, the biggest question that remains afterwards is this: just what sort of film was that? The best explanation – and defence – that I can give for Silver L’s is that it’s in actuality a straightforward, serious drama that masquerades as a romantic-comedy only in the sense that it uses the framework of it. But to use the setup of a rom-com to deliver a deep and potentially troubling drama that focuses on mental health issues seems risky for obvious reasons.

The reality – and here’s where you can breathe a sigh of relief – is that the film doesn’t come across as offensive or troublesome at any point. In fact it seems to have a pretty good heart to it that makes a real defence for the characters. Pat (Cooper) is often shown to be in situations that spiral out-of-control largely due to the unreasonable people that he, funnily enough, is keen to associate himself with. There are moments that feel uncomfortable not due to an unkindness or bashfulness related to mental health, but rather because of our empathy for him.

In fact, there are occasions that feel like they warrant our reaching into the screen to protect him (and Tiffany too) from their self-destructive paths, but the key to this journey is, of course, self-discovery and the desire (and necessity) to make it on their own. But, to their credit, the leads don’t shy away from the world in their attempts to re-integrate themselves back into it. Pat makes no excuses: he accepts responsibility for his actions and vows to remain positive, even if that’s easier said than done.

The problem is that, throughout, the film might as well signpost every plot twist and turn with a birthday cake and a set of balloons. If the unnaturalness of these comedic (more than romantic) setups in the writing seems somewhat odd to begin with, then it doesn’t take long for them to descend into farce with the winner-takes-all ridiculousness of the final showdown. The question is whether this farce is knowing of itself, and whether the sly nod to the camera is one that works in such a setup that is otherwise straight-faced and politely asks for your consideration.

Therefore the real question is whether it’s possible for a fairly serious film to really work in this way. The reason that I don’t automatically subscribe to the position which labels it as a romantic-comedy is primarily because it isn’t overly funny or romantic. Again this isn’t a criticism – rather, it doesn’t try to be. There are plenty of small laughs throughout because of the way it’s handled, but the premise never gives way to what would be ludicrousness of laugh-out-loud comedy or unnecessary romance (which, in a sense, barely features at all). The laughs and the love generally come from a far subtler place.

It seems to me then, on reflection, to be a shame that it resorted to an easy-way-out finale which neither supports nor fairly reflects the qualities of the rest of the film up to – and after – that point. There’s a question as to whether the film is a rom-com, a drama or something in between. Fortunately it’s good enough to dodge the bullets that it foolishly aims towards its own head by a combination of the issues – which actually merit re-visiting the film at a future date – and of course the impressive performances by a very talented cast.

SLP, whilst genuinely more than watchable, could have given us so much more with just a little bit of tweaking. And whilst I really like the very end, the film’s final punch doesn’t deliver a knockout blow in the same way that the director’s previous film The Fighter did – instead it settles for an admirable yet regrettably forgettable points victory.

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