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My 12 for ’12: Silver Linings Playbook & Earning Your Happy Ending

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #7

The term “uplifting” is thrown around a lot these days. Happy endings are very funny things. They seem to be a given for most major Hollywood films, and so there’s a degree of predictability to them. And yet, despite that, there’s also usually a sense that they are somewhat contrived or manipulated or otherwise the result of a rigged game. In order to raise the stakes, films will generally put our characters in peril, and create a massive sense of jeopardy for our heroes to overcome in order to secure the inevitable happy ending. However, as time goes on, we become increasingly cynical and sceptical, so those stakes get higher and higher. The ending remains guaranteed, so making the threat so much more menacing means we have to suspend greater and greater levels of disbelief in order to accept that everybody involved lived happily ever after.

Your ability to accept Silver Linings Playbook will directly correspond to your ability to accept an improbably neat happy ending. However, what distinguishes David O. Russell’s latest film from the bulk of the other “uplifting” examples of modern cinema is the fact that the stakes manage to seem far more emotional and psychological than literal and tangible, and that the characters involved feel so much more real.

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Okay, the climax of Silver Linings Playbook hinges on a bet with massive financial repercussions for Pat Sr. He bets all of his money on one particular sports game and his son’s ability to score quite reasonably in a dancing competition of which he has no experience. However, Silver Linings Playbook is honest enough that it never treats the money as the real prize. Pat Sr.’s bet is secured not only his son’s performance on the dance floor, but on a football game over which he has no control.

That bet is a “parlay”, a gambling term that means the pay-off depends on multiple events and outcomes. Pat Sr. doesn’t stake half the money on his son and half the money on the game. Pat bets all of the money on both his son and on the game. While there’s undoubtedly skill involved in the dance performance, the football match is completely out of the control of anything in this plot. The outcome of that game is determined solely by luck, chance or fate.

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Given this is a movie and everything is scripted, the outcome of the football match is assured by what the characters might deem to be “fate.” The fact that Pat wins that half of the bet handily enough – the half that is completely outside his control, or the control of his son – seems like a confession on the part of the script that things will be okay. Pat needed “luck” in order to win, and this is a movie that believes that the fortune will favour those with a deserving cause – that those who try hard enough for their happy endings might earn it, and won’t got home unrewarded.

The real stakes are tied up in the dance competition that Pat Jr. and Tiffany enter, and those stakes have relatively little to do with the money that Pat has bet. Can Pat hold it together long enough to talk to his ex-wife, and can he do it in such a way that he will be civil? Can Tiffany overcome her own problems and insecurities long enough to actually finish the dance with Pat? These are questions that require us to be invested in Pat and Tiffany as characters, and it’s to the credit of the script and the leads that we are invested enough that we care about how this plays out.

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Again, the script tips its hand here. According to the bet, Pat and Tiffany must score at least 5.0 on a ten-point scale. That’s a score of 50%, perfectly average. It’s not exceptional, it’s not phenomenal. Achieving an “average” score is not impossible, and does not require a massive suspension of disbelief. I don’t have a rhythmic bone in my body, and I believe that – with enough practise and focus – I could probably come close to a 5.0.

Silver Linings Playbook suggests that Pat and Tiffany don’t need to distinguish themselves to earn a happy ending. The film’s optimistic philosophy suggests that even on average, a happy ending is distinctly possible. A lot of reviewers have been quick to attack the film’s portrayal of metal illness – some accuse him of putting the issue “out of play” – but I think you could argue that it’s a remarkably sincere portrayal of two people struggling with their demons.

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Most impressively, Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t ask the impossible of its leads. Neither Pat nor Tiffany are magically “a-okay” by the end of the film. The script doesn’t expect them to be fully recovered by the time the credit roles. That would be impossible, impractical and it would send all the wrong messages in an industry that has historically had a great deal of difficulty dealing with the issue of mental illness.

Silver Linings Playbook is honest enough to concede that asking Pat and Tiffany to be fully cured by the end of the movie is akin to expecting them to be professional dancers after a few practise sessions – it’s a bet that would require them to score a 10.0, something next-to-impossible for seasoned veterans, let alone two amateurs. Instead, the film instead asks us to accept the idea that if they can learn to manage their problems, if they can learn to cope, if they can make it half-way, then maybe they can get a happy ending.

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I admit that it’s a notion that requires suspension of disbelief. There’s any number of reasons that either or both might falter in the time after the end credits role, but Silver Linings Playbook is about hoping that if you can make an effort and come through something absolutely terrible, then things might somehow get a little bit less terrible. The script hints at the benign nature of the universe when it afford Pat Sr. an easy victory with the football match, but it betrays its romantic world view even earlier on.

In one early scene, Pat has an episode. After reading A Farewell to Arms, he is less than receptive to the book’s rather grim world view. Terrifying his mother and upsetting his father, he bursts into their room to offer an impromptu lecture on why Ernest Hemmingway would not be near the top of his “favourite authors” list:

I just can’t believe Nikki’s teaching that book to the kids. I mean the whole time — let me just break it down for you — the whole time you’re rooting for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with the woman that he loves, Catherine Barkley…

It’s four o’clock in the morning, Pat.

…and he does. He does. He survives the war, after getting blown up he survives it, and he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine. But now Catherine’s pregnant. Isn’t that wonderful? She’s pregnant. And they escape up into the mountains and they’re gonna be happy, and they’re gonna be drinking wine and they dance — they both like to dance with each other, there’s scenes of them dancing, which was boring, but I liked it, because they were happy. You think he ends it there? No! He writes another ending. She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys. It’s &%!@ing hard enough as it is. Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

That’s not to discount the value of an unhappy ending, or a more ambiguous conclusion. After all, there’s a reason that A Farewell to Arms is considered a classic. However, if the world can be a cold and horrible place, then surely it can also be an optimistic and wonderful place? If it’s possible for terrible things to happen to good people, then isn’t it possible for good things to happen to them too?silverliningsplaybook1

Silver Linings Playbook is unashamedly optimistic, and it never tries to hide that fact. However, that doesn’t mean that it is dishonest. We know that Pat and Tiffany are both struggling with very serious problems that they will struggle to keep under control. However, just because we acknowledge their struggles and the difficulties facing them, that doesn’t mean that we can’t hope for a happy ending, right?

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

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