Lessons from the Multiplex: Silver Linings Playbook

Part of writing is watching movies and learning from them. From time to time, I will force myself to step away from the computer and the endless grind of churning out work and  get a real education watching stuff. And I’ll post about it here briefly, and what I learned.

First up, Silver Linings Playbook which is my favorite movie of 2012 and which until two weeks ago was still playing at my local movie theater.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Still playing at a movie theater near me

Still playing at a movie theater near me

Here’s an example of a film that wakes up when a character enters. SLP is just burbling along as a familiar trope of the returned, mentally-ill, younger prodigal son (Pat) who comes home to some suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s cute and funny and the character has a plan about getting his life back (alluding to finding a silver lining in everything, which I gotta say as dialogue is the one thing that felt a little contrived) so we’re rooting for him. Turns out he had a colossal breakdown sending him to a mental facility when his English teacher wife was cheating with the history teacher who had tenure (nice little detail). He has an Asian therapist that he checks in with so we can seamlessly learn this backstory. And his dad, Robert de Niro, who thank goodness, is more than just coloring by numbers here in a role with some meat on it, is a superstitious bookie forced into it by losing his job. He’s Eagles obsessed which is a neat way to tie the theme of mental illness to football in an unexpected juxtaposition that works really well.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Nothing to do with the writing, but check out the great comic framing.

So the scene’s set…a sympathetic character, a fun, quirky family (but not in an overly, indie-indulgent way) and some stakes…win my wife back. And in walks the Jennifer Lawrence character, Tiffany, who is like the archetypal bombshell romantic comedy heroine turned up to eleven. She’s a tornado: an ex-slut widow, who will always be a little “sloppy and dirty”, who is prepared to rip the scab off of Pat’s suffering. Here’s the moment I fell in love with her. A bewildered Pat, taken aback by her sexual aggressiveness on the first night they meet says “How old are you?” Tiffany replies “Old enough to have a marriage end and not wind up in a mental hospital.” (!)
But Tiffany dangles the opportunity for Pat to get a letter to his estranged wife as a bargaining chip for being her partner in a dancing contest and Pat, desperate to get back to his wife, but also afraid of messing it up by falling for Tiffany (a realistic dilemma), agrees. And the contest injects a nice bit of tension into the second act, especially when it’s coupled with the double or nothing bet on the Eagles game. (the parlay! a nice bit of random knowledge I picked up from this movie.)
Lots of things work in SLP: the minor characters who come to the fore in unexpected ways (the Asian therapist, the hen-pecked husband, the perfect brother), the harsh on the outside-fragile on the inside Tiffany, the ridiculous dance contest where our leads are hilariously moderate in an unremarkable way. And it was nice even seeing Julia Stiles as an all grown up ball-buster.
I think, against all odds, this is my favorite movie of the year.

WHAT I LEARNED: Tiffany reminded me a little of one of my own rom-com heroine characters, and by contrast, showed me how much farther I need to push that character. Extremes are where the real drama lies. Of course it helps when your extreme is courtesy mental illness because that, in a way, makes all behavior plausible, but there’s probably a way you can push your character further that makes sense.

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