Last weekend I was watching Silver Linings Playbook on DVD. (Yes, I am aware of streaming. I’m just old fashioned in some ways.) It struck me what a great example this wonderful Oscar-winning movie is for romance writers. (Sad to say I haven’t yet read the novel it’s based on, which is probably even a better example.)
The problem with most Hollywood romantic comedies is that they give us characters with one issue they need to overcome before they get together. Perhaps the woman is afraid of commitment (Runaway Bride), or the hero is keeping secrets from the girl (You’ve Got Mail), or is pretending to be someone she’s not (Maid in Manhattan). These situations make for a light, entertaining ride, like a big bucket of popcorn soaked in fake butter. But you would never meet these characters in the real world.
Playbook is refreshingly different. Pat and Tiffany have ISSUES. They’re both crazy in a literal and figurative sense. Pat imagines that he can will himself out of his bi-polar illness and win back his wife. Tiffany was fired for sleeping with everyone in her office as she coped with her depression. Yes, the way they act sometimes seems over-the-top. But if you know someone with bi-polar illness or depression, you can see a great deal of reality in the way they interact.
These two people are f***ked up. Winning a dance contest and falling in love isn’t going to make their problems go away. They’re always going to have issues. Even if they get together in the end, you know they’re probably not going to live happily ever after. I wonder if they’ll last three months.
One of my favorite scenes in Playbook nicely illustrates how this movie veers from traditional romantic comedy. It’s a montage where Pat and Tiffany practice for the dance contest. It’s not a sensual or sexy scene (Except for the lingering stare Bradley Cooper gives Jennifer Lawrence’s naked back.), but we know these two messed up people are falling in love.
We see that Pat is changing, but he can’t admit his feelings. After staring at Tiffany, he runs home and throws himself on the bed. He’s so stunned and confused that he doesn’t notice he’s knocked to the floor all the novels he’s been reading to convince his wife to take him back.
But it’s the music over the scene that gives it an even deeper complexity you won’t find in other romantic comedies. Most directors would have chosen some pop confection that blatantly tells us what these characters are feeling. But director David O. Russell chooses a very different song — Bob Dylan’s 50-year- country/folk song, Girl From the North Country.
The song has nothing to do with the music they’re dancing to, or their situation, but it says so much about who they are. It’s far from a traditional love song. The song’s narrator is asking someone to check on the woman he loves, to make sure “she’s wearing a coat so warm, to keep her from the howling wind.” It’s likely he’ll never see his love again. It’s a plaintive cry of longing and loss.
I wish more romances (at least in the film and literary world) were like this. I like boy and girl to get together in the end, but I also want to know that life is deep, complex, and more than happily-ever-afters.