Crazy little thing called love

Nicola M. Sebastian - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - We’ve become such experts at the rom-com that it’s hard for screenwriters to surprise us these days. But, every now and then, a film comes along that does exactly that — surprise us. And by the time we realize what is happening, we care too much about the characters to not care about whether the guy gets the girl.

You’ve probably watched Silver Linings Playbook by now, the one that won Jennifer Lawrence her little golden man for leading lady. It starts off with a guy, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), talking to himself in a psychiatric ward. He has bipolar disorder, but he tells himself he’s going to get better. Silver linings. “Excelsior,” he says. Deliverance comes to Pat in white step-ins when his mother (Jacki Weaver) arrives to spring him from the nuthouse. He comes home to a dad (Robert De Niro) obsessed with his home team, the Philadelphia Eagles (you can see where he gets his tendencies from), a room at his parents’ house, and a small town abuzz with the fallout of his mental breakdown. Enter: equally crazy girl, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She lost a husband to a car accident, he lost his wife to a tenured professor; she slept with her entire office, he almost killed the man; she’s socially offensive, he’s brutally honest. In other words, they’re perfect for each other.

They speak the same language, but what really gets them on the road to recovery is a deal they strike with each other, which gets them to do the one thing truly insane people can’t do: something for someone else. And, like any deal, the stakes are equal: his silver lining (a letter to his estranged wife) against hers (a dance competition).

The film’s title speaks of a playbook. It’s kind of a stupid name, to be honest — like it was tacked on as an afterthought. I thought it was just talking about football; I didn’t realize that it’s the story itself. Because, once you get past all the crazy talk, the film unravels like the perfect play that wins the game: The guy. The girl. The opposing team. The stacked odds and the ticking clock. The feint left. The big finish. Touchdown! It’s so textbook that it shouldn’t work. I mean, it’s almost a game of spot the Nora Ephron giveaways: the spunky girl with a cute quirk (although here the quirk has been medically diagnosed), the ostensibly platonic friendship, the guy-realizes-what-he-has-and-runs-through-the-streets scene, the hysterical female breakdown, the “I get you” conversation at the end that finishes off with, you guessed it, The Kiss.

But the key here is that feint. We don’t get what we’re watching until it’s too late. When Pat’s dad loses everything in a ridiculous bet and they’re all in the living room, matching their crazies against each other, and Jennifer starts speaking in odds and omens, in the dad’s language, we realize that we’ve joined the circus, too, because, geez, they’re starting to make sense! The sweet, embattled mother, the only sane person in the room, becomes that annoying rational voice in our head that tells us, no, all those coincidences do absolutely nothing to improve the odds, and, yes, betting their family’s entire savings on a couple of amateurs at a professional dance competition and one football game is a terrible idea. Of course, by this time we are no longer listening.

It speaks of how boring and formulaic the romantic comedy has become that its elements have to be dressed up in the clothing of a drama about mental illness (some argue Playbook overly simplifies the condition). Or maybe it speaks of how sly we’ve become, like a tween at a children’s party. But maybe we aren’t being sly, and neither is the rom-com; maybe it’s the rom-com as how it is supposed to be, how it was when Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally or Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (or The Apartment, for that matter) was playing in cinemas. Maybe it’s the 27 Dresses and I Don't Know How She Does It that are the flukes, and we’re just less willing to tolerate crappy Hollywood time-wasters.

There’s a scene at an Eagles game, where everyone — therapist and patient, older and younger brothers, sane or crazy — is cheering for the same team. All hopes riding on the padded backs of so many football players; everyday troubles, professional appearances, and social boundaries thrown into the air in a fit of camaraderie that is much more than just alcohol — at least until a fight breaks out. Right there is a kind of lunacy in itself, and as we get to know Pat and Tiffany, we realize that there are many kinds of crazy, and not all of them are half bad.

Like any good trick, a truth lies at the heart of it: maybe the only way to make sense of this world is to be a little crazy. The dad makes sense of the world through an OCD belief in luck, believing in the Eagles like he believes in his son, in family, in good things happening to good people. Bradley believes in a silver lining that for the better part of the film is nowhere to be seen: a wife who has put out a restraining order on him. And Jennifer puts all of her hopes on a dance she cannot even hope to win. All of these characters, hedging their bets against impossible odds. Yup, crazy, every one of them.

And don’t forget, us, the audience — yeah, you too — believing, against all eye-roll plotlines, badly rehashed stereotypes, and bitterly disappointing realities, that two crazies can make each other right, that somehow this guy and this girl, against all odds, against everyone else — against themselves, even — should and can and will be together.

For what is crazier, more improbable, more irrational, than love? And out of all crazy things we believe, what is more important?

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