SONIA BRAND-FISHER: How to put this gently… “Silver Linings Playbook” is a film that, for me, had enormous potential. With an A-list cast, a colloquial script, and a hand-held camera used to capture the intimate neuroses of a middle-class family in Philadelphia, there were moments of genuine enthusiasm and struggle. The film followed the family’s process of accepting one of their sons, Pat (Bradley Cooper), home from a psychiatric institution. The beauty of this film lies in the dynamics and layered dialogue of the central family, who prepare for each Eagles game with a series of good-luck rituals to keep up the juju while noshing on “crab snacks and homemades.” You seriously felt like you were in this family’s house, sharing their joy and anguish over everything from Hemingway to heartbreak. Yet, what seriously tarnished what otherwise was a current and down-to-earth film was the distorted and gut-wrenching representation of its women.
There were four main women in this film, all of whom we have seen represented in countless other films, let alone for eons as standard female archetypes. We have the Madonna/Whore complex going on between the “perfect” new mother, Veronica (Julia Styles), and her misfit self-proclaimed “slut” sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). We have the mother of the central family, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), who maintains a constant level of worry throughout the film (she has reason to, but still). And finally, the femme fatale, Nikki (Brea Bee) who plays Pat’s cheating yet perpetually idealized wife. With our pawns placed deliberately to protect the Hollywood-manufactured concepts of womanhood, let’s look at our leading lady Tiffany. I found her character, her affect, her words, and her placement among the other members of the cast to be problematic, to say the least. In her first sixty seconds on screen we are introduced to, not Tiffany, but the character of “the sexy crazy.” The Sexy Crazy enters with narrowed eyes shrouded in black eyeliner, a low-cut black ensemble, her hair in sexy snarls, and her lips in perfected pout. We learn of her various mental illnesses throughout the film, which she deals with by drinking and sleeping around. Instead of exploring mental illness with respect and empathy in a way that deepens her character and furthers the plot line, she is made into the easy-to-swallow Sexy Crazy, who can be consumed in one delicious gulp by those not expecting much from her character other than her sexiness. In Laura Mulvey’s canonical article “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” she describes Freud’s concept of scopophilia: the process of objectifying a person and subjecting them to the control of a curious gaze, often erotic in nature. She argues that the cinema has a fascination with women’s bodies more so than their characters, and for the purposes of the “male gaze” (the assumed consumers of cinema, and everything else) the camera deconstructs her body into pieces so that they can be viewed in scopophilic appetizers. In a series of shots, we are introduced to Tiffany by her breasts, her lips, her nail polish (black, of course), and her jewelry. From these snapshots, we are to assume her sex appeal, and we chuckle at Pat’s reaction to her.
But it gets worse. We learn that Tiffany has recently lost her husband and has been screwing her entire office (women included, cue drooling from Pat). Now unemployed, she tries to be “friends” with Pat (which we don’t believe for a second) and agrees to help him get Nikki back. What does she ask for in return? That he will dance with her in a dance competition. Do you know what this means? More chances for the camera to get all up in her body so she can be FURTHER fetishized, and we then get to bring in the even sexier detail that she is, as Pat says, “artistic”! She is hence compartmentalized in a way that makes her out as easy to “control,” and easy to understand. In a conversation between Pat and Tiffany in a diner, they have a talk about which of them is more crazy, with Pat making an uncalled for judgement that because Tiffany is hyper-sexual that she absolutely must be more crazy. Tiffany gets angry, throws a tantrum, and storms out. In a scene that I otherwise would shout “YOU GO GIRL!” I find myself cringing. Instead of appearing badass or strong, she looks childish. We see no signs of Pat’s remorse for this judgment as the film progresses. Instead, Tiffany gets over it like a good girl, lets Pat back into her life, falls in love with him and they dance together. Pat is made out to be “rescuing” Tiffany from herself, and we think it’s all so romantic. Way to go, Pat, for having a film system in play that cares enough about your struggle as protagonist to have your neuroses put forth in a way that is understandable yet compelling so you can come out on top! The only moment where Tiffany is represented as more than an object is when she lists all of the coincidences to Pat’s family that suggest that the Eagles will win the big football game. It’s a very cool moment, and redeems her in the family’s eyes as more than just a siren. But it is a short lived scene, and can only be punctuated by a sultry stare off-camera while she swigs a Budweiser.
Look, I don’t mean to tear apart a movie that, at its core, I think, had really good intentions. Robert Deniro as Pat’s father brought so much pathos and conflict to the central plot, and he did that thing where he is such a good actor that you forget he’s a movie star. I love that. I loved his family. When Pat was bursting into his parents’ room at 3 in the morning complaining about “A Farewell to Arms,” it was a scene of comic brilliance. It was. But why on earth did a film with so much strength and heart feel the need to set its female characters back into archetypes? Why is Veronica seen as domineering for succeeding at having a home she loves, a husband who respects her (but who is apparently suffocating under her “control” of him), and a happy lifestyle? Why do we get no sense of Dolores’s personality outside of the love she has for her sons and husband? Why is Nikki not allowed to speak? And what are we “supposed” to see in Tiffany? And don’t say “that wasn’t the focus of the movie,” because I’m not buying that excuse anymore. These questions need to be asked of films that, otherwise, could have been so good.