Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook (Book & Film) - 'This is what I believe to be true'

“Dr. Patel: Pat, you have to have a strategy.
Pat: I hate my illness and I want to control it. This is what I believe to be true: You have to do everything you can and if you stay positive you have a shot at a silver lining." 
– Silver Linings Playbook (Film)

I finished reading Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick last night. The book is narrated by bipolar protagonist Pat Peoples in a way not dissimilar to the obsessive self-awareness of Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. One of the devices used by Quick to give Pat a distinctive voice is repetition – of phrases, ideas, even whole paragraphs, highlighting his obsessive focus.

Matthew Quick
Having been released from a psychiatric hospital Pat is hopelessly set on reuniting with his (ex)wife Nikki. During the years he has been in the ‘bad place’, we find out Nikki has divorced him and taken out a restraining order. This is because of the incident which resulted in his institutionalisation – where he violently lost control when he caught her cheating. This is slowly revealed throughout the book as Quick subtly de-constructs the illusion of Nikki in Pat’s narrative. As a character she never physically enters the narrative, she is endlessly talked about but conspicuously absent, heightening the on-going futility of Pat’s ambitions. A lot of the novel is Pat regaining suppressed memories – whereas in the film it is more about him facing what he already knows.

Pat sees his life as a movie and is insistent there will be a happy ending, making excuses for any bad event or evidence contrary to his beliefs as a difficult moment before this inevitability – a final twist before redemption. When he gets home he begins his own course of self-improvement, including intensive gym routines and working through the reading list for the school Nikki teaches at. Quick includes Pat’s opinions on each book, The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, which is actually very effective in showing Pat’s inability to cope with the endings and how he, perhaps subconsciously, misreads them to suit his own perspective. 

Jennifer Lawrence. 2 Oscar Nominations at the age of 22
Tiffany is the depressed young widow who spiralled out of control following her husband’s accidental death and offers to be a channel of communication, via letter, between Pat and Nikki. This may seem like a predictable formula but it’s actually sensitively and cleverly executed. Nikki is absent – never really there – so instead it is a kind of therapeutic lie. In the book, Pat almost reacts violently when he discovers Tiffany’s deception but in the film he is shown to have reached a stage where it doesn't bother him anymore. He has grown and is on the way to accepting and appreciating what others have had to do for him. His friendship with Tiffany is mutually beneficial especially when she enlists his help with a dancing project – which has all the criteria which would normally make me cringe – but the emotional vulnerability and comedic talent of Jennifer Lawrence just makes it fun and captivating to watch.

Because the book is narrated in this moderately obsessive first person narrative, Pat imposes himself very heavily and the other characters are specifically focalised through him.Tiffany is absent for a lot of the book, in terms of dialogue and action in the narrative, but it is her very imposing presence in the film which really establishes a successful and complex dynamic. As a quartet, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are exceptional in the way they all interact with each other and each characters individuality comes to the fore. 

Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro
The film is different because meticulous, objective attention is paid to each detail of the parents’ behaviour. DeNiro, as Pat’s father, is implied to be obsessive compulsive and his behaviour and moods arbitrarily governed by the results of his favourite American Football team, the Eagles. There’s even an interesting parallel between father and son since Pat Sr. was banned from the Eagles stadium for assaulting another fan – it’s a thin line between who gets the stigma of being institutionalised and who is excused. Weaver, meanwhile, is the neglected but optimistic wife who tries to hold the family together while also being extremely emotionally fragile herself.  

I’m sure there are those who will find it very easy to be cynical about this film. I know the term romantic comedy is often used derogatorily and suggests the same old formulas and characters merely carried along by the same old plot – but the characters are  too complex to fall prey to that in this film and those who revert to that criticism perhaps need to think harder about the journey. There are also those, I’m sure, who will feel that it stigmatises mental illness or misrepresents it – but this story never claims to be about mental illness. It has emotionally flawed characters who struggle honestly with their own manifestations of it and their individual circumstances. (Who is anyone to claim that an individual story is being misrepresented when it is entirely subjective?) There were moments early in the film where I feared it might become too much – when Pat has episodes – and make a bit of a spectacle of it but it really settles into itself as the movie progresses. Maybe it could be argued the ending is predictable – but again it is what all the characters have to overcome and accept that makes it actually very rewarding to watch and think about. It is about finding a strategy and acceptance, not a simple getting better but a way to cope healthily. The film could have fallen into numerous clich├ęs by making the dance competition centre stage – and it is prominent in the film but in a really hilarious endearing way. Unlike in the book, a lot depends on the result but not something unrealistic like winning against the odds – just doing their best and hoping for a silver lining. It could be argued the dance and bets were a contrived way to move to hollywood resolution but there is detail in every character portrayal that makes it mean more than that. 
Bradley Cooper

The fact is the film has garnered much critical acclaim – it’s a contender in eight categories for the Oscars – has already picked up critics’ awards and audience favourite at festivals and its thoroughly deserved. It’s funny, moving and layered. I think it’s a brilliant adaptation of the book – it is nominated for best adapted screenplay – because it’s paid such close attention to each character and brought each to the fore in very specific and important ways. There are slight plot differences but they add rather than detract – they’re not arbitrary decisions for dramatic effect, they are strategically designed to suit the characters and the direction. Compared to the other players in the Best Picture category Silver Linings had a small budget and I think the people involved are genuinely pleasantly surprised by the attention it has received.

Both book and film are ultimately endearing because they are genuine. Quick should be commended for the very careful and genuine way in which he creates a character like Pat. In award season there are films strategically released with very obvious Oscar pretensions but this is something different and if it can pick up even more awards it will be very deserved in its own right. Audiences and critics have taken notice for genuine reasons – enjoyment, empathy, heart but also brilliant writing, interesting characters and exceptional acting. 

“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.” ― Tiffany (as Nikki) - Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

“Life is hard, and children have to be told how hard life can be…So they will be sympathetic to others. So they will understand that some people have it harder than they do and that a trip through this world can be a wildly different experience, depending on what chemicals are raging through one’s mind.” ― Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

“I am practicing being kind over being right.” ― Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

It's also worth checking out the soundtrack as the changing tones in the film are really enhanced by the song choices and compositions - here are a couple: - 'Always Alright' - Alabama Shakes - 'Girl from the North Country' - Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash