So my movie buddy and I are watching the best picture list from the Oscars. Our first go? Silver Linings Playbook. I’ve documented the travesties here. Full text below the fold.
Genre in Bad Faith
So I wasn’t going to watch Silver Linings Playbook. I’d seen the trailer and was pretty sure that it would be terrible. Then one day, I found myself heading to a theatre to watch this thing with Caitlin as part of our Best Picture screening list. Sitting down, I was genuinely confused: how could a trailer be so misleading? I quickly learned, it wasn’t.
This movie is clearly a romantic comedy. But in what I take to be a bid for contemporaneity or seriousness, it makes a big deal about cutting through the bull, getting real, and addressing the problems of relationships today. The hard truth this film proposes is that a lot of us are sick, diagnosable, requiring accommodation. To know each other, the characters don’t need to communicate. They just need to be brought up to speed on their case histories. And so, in scene after bathetic scene, we listen to unpleasant characters announce their diagnoses to each other as if these constituted personalities. “I AM” he says. “I AM” she says. “I AM” he says. And so on and so on. And who cares?
For all it’s self-importance, this approach to character is much more simplistic than the approach native to romantic comedies of the classic 1930s sort. Watch Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story or It Happened One Night and you’ll see movies about adults made for adults. They have happy endings, yes. But these movies earn those endings in complicated and emotionally complex stories that transform their characters and launch them forward into life. Nothing in romantic comedy–the cinematic genre most closely related to the theatre of Shakespeare–is simple or easy. It only seems that way because we want so badly for its faith in us to be true.
Silver Linings Playbook may believe its view of humanity is smarter and truer than romantic comedy’s, but in the end, it can’t pull off the picture it wants to paint. “I AM” plus “I AM” doesn’t equal “we.” And so in it’s final moments, the movie generates the romantic closure it seeks by embracing (without avowing) the romantic genre it has worked so hard to repudiate. Out of the blue, this movie about him saying “I AM sick, that’s just me,” and her saying “I AM (not) a slut, deal with it,” becomes a movie about a dance competition, one part Strictly Ballroom, one part Little Miss Sunshine. Untrained, outclassed and with all of the family’s fortunes on the line (don’t ask), the characters decide to try their best, dance their hardest, and in the end, against all odds, discover they can do it if they just let go and have fun. The family fortune is saved, and the two, now lovers, find each other and kiss in the empty nighttime streets, happy finally together.
I think this movie wants to update a genre. It wants to make those silly, old-fashioned movies take account of what we “know” today about human experience. How after all, if so much of what we feel and experience is actually symptomatic of illness, can you find love? It is telling (and reassuring) that the movie can’t offer an answer any different than the established generic answer. That four-hundred year old tale of marriage delayed but achieved through work and conversation still rings true to our experience and aspirations. The tangle of diagnosis this film takes as our lot does not.
…and yet, all those awards and nominations…
Something in us wants to believe in the new story of sick people this movie can’t figure out how to tell. And that’s terrifying.