This column was supposed to be about Philip Seymour Hoffman. For the last few days, I’ve been writing about Oscar nominees that I’d vote for if the Academy would just let dorky critics get a say in the matter, like the First Amendment and Helen Mirren clearly intended they should. I’ve explained why my heart belongs to Sally Field and Moonrise Kingdom, and today, I was prepared to shower trophies on Philip Seymour Hoffman for his exceptional work in The Master.
But as I sat down to write, my heart swerved. My hands shook. My gut told me the truth. As much as I admire Hoffman’s performance as a sort-of L. Ron Hubbard—and I really do—I can’t shake Robert De Niro’s gentle and heartbreaking turn as a man with OCD, a gambling addiction, and anger management issues who is trying to connect to his son.
There are several scenes, for instance, where De Niro’s character, Pat Sr., tries to convince his son that if he doesn’t stay home and watch football, then the home team will lose and Pat Sr. will lose a lot of money as a result. And in De Niro’s timing and facial expressions, you can hear two things at once. On one hand, you know he really does believe that all the money he’s wagered hangs on his magical thinking about who’s in the room. But on the other, you know he’s trying to tell his son he loves him… and this is the only way he knows how. And I am just a sucker for people who can only express their deep feelings through misdirection.
This gets at why I love Silver Linings Playbook in general: On the surface, it creates a highly stylized, comedic world about aggressively disturbed people who find themselves in increasingly odd situations. Pat. Sr’s neurotic son and his nympho girlfriend have to win a dance contest in order to save everybody’s fortunes? Even though they’ve never danced? And then because they get a middling score, they win a bet that saves everyone? If you step back from it, this is obviously a broadly comic tale in the tradition of everything from the Marx Brothers to Restoration comedies of the British stage.
And like all great comedy, Silver Linings Playbook constructs an artificial world so it can more easily make a moral point. When we can see the mechanics of how characters behave—when we are pointedly reminded that they’re behaving as written creations—then it’s easier to appreciate their actions as metaphors. It’s easier to see the dance contest as the story of human will. Can’t we all imagine situations we were forced into, despite our obvious failings? And can’t we remember at least one time when we still emerged—if not victorious, then at least not destroyed? And didn’t that minor victory feel like winning it all? And isn’t that a nice metaphor for surviving the difficulty of being human?
Well… yeah. It is. And that’s the moral point at the core of this movie. We’re all screwed up, and sometimes, just surviving is worth a celebration.
Of course, the actors are so damn soulful, so damn nuanced in their work that they still seem human in these mechanical situations. They give crafted performances, but they don’t give screwball performances that blatantly play up the artificiality of acting. And that’s how De Niro—not to mention Jennifer Lawrence and everyone else in the movie—manages to honor the comedic rhythms while injecting them with heart. As directed by David O. Russell, he finds every comedic beat, and then he adds one more layer of sincere feeling. And it’s amazing.
Mark Blankenship doesn’t even understand the rules to football, but he would still watch with Pat Sr. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.