This will contain some spoilers and such, including a detailed discussion of the ending.
David O. Russell is one of my favorite directors. Three Kings is an underrated masterpiece, I Heart Huckabees is one of my favorite strange films, and Spanking the Monkey ranks up there with any of the all-time great dark comedies. I was honestly a little lukewarm on The Fighter, but it was nice to see it getting critical acclaim and it was a solid film, if a bit narratively disjointed for my taste. There was only a very, very slim chance of me not seeing this movie.
I found it funny that Film Critic Hulk posted an article on SLP the same day that I went to see it, so I decided to hold off on reading his article until I got back home. It’s rare that I feel FCH completely misread a film. I didn’t feel that way when I saw Dark Knight Rises, even though I disagreed with the majority of his condemnations of the film. Given this, I was caught off-guard by the fact that he did not care for this film at all. He felt lied to, and that his broke his fundamental rule of films, “the ending is the conceit”.
In brief, the premise of the film is as follows. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is in a mental institution. He’s not doing well. He’s not taking his meds, he’s talking to his wife who is not present, and he’s having manic personality issues. He’s released into the care of his mother, as is approved by the courts after 8 months. Cleverly, you don’t know much about why he was sentenced at this point.
The film then follows Pat as he tries to resume his life and win his wife back. He’s getting into shape, it’s mentioned many times that he has lost a LOT of weight, and he’s reading the entire syllabus of books that his wife was teaching. He is not, however, taking any medication. He is invited to dinner by his long-time friend Ronnie (John Ortiz), who’s wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), also invites her sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) to dinner. Tiffany’s husband died suddenly, and she’s spiraled into a self-destructive cycle and depression. The rest of the movie follow Pat and Tiffany as they work out a deal. Pat will be Tiffany’s dance partner at the Policeman’s Ball Competition, and Tiffany will give Pat’s wife Nikki a letter for him, which circumvents his restraining order.
In all of this, we have Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro not phoning it in), who has lost his job and is now a bookie out of his house. Pat Sr. is incredibly OCD in a way that hinders his life. It’s quite clear that mental illness runs in the family, and that it’s likely inherited through the male side of the family.
Early on in the film, we are given two scenes which I consider to be the central thesis of the film. First, we have the motto of Excelsior! , which Pat explains at great length, not shying away from saying the words “silver lining”. Second, we have the Farewell to Arms scene. This scene is probably my favorite in the film, as I have to admit feeling the same way when I read the book. When I explain the scene, you might think less of me. I’m willing to risk it.
This scene begins with a montage of things happening in the house as Pat continues to buckle down and read one of the many books he got at the library. He reads, people are shown doing things, he reads more, they get ready for bed, he reads more, and people are shown going to sleep. Then, we see Pat finish the book, and hurl it violently out the window. He storms into his parents bedroom, where we learn it is 4am, and begins to viscerally tear into both the novel and Earnest Hemingway. The critical take away here is the statement that Pat makes concerning the ending. Hemingway could have ended the novel on the upswing, the characters happy and starting a family, but no. He goes on to have Catherine die after her birth is stillborn. (Yeah, I might have just spoiled a damn near 90 year old book for you. I think society will back me on this one) His point is that he had the happy ending sitting there, and he chose to continue the story until it was unhappy.
This should give you everything you need to know about the film. Yes, the film is undercut with a harsh grimness at time. The people in this film behave in a way that is very real, and at time is fucking horrible to watch. FCH believes that this is the true thesis of the film. That the shining veneer of story is torn away to reveal this awfulness. There is no happy ending, no matter how you strive for it. The third act, he states, devolves into pure “movieness” and strays away entirely from this thesis, creating an ending that doesn’t jive with the rest of the film. Thus, the ending is not the conceit, and therein lies the unhappiness of the Hulkster.
However, I don’t believe that’s the case. The combined scene statement of “Where’s the silver lining?” and the diatribe on the novel seem to explicitly state the intent of this film. I was never once fooled into thinking otherwise. Is the narrative journey intriguing and part of the process? Yes, absolutely. I am quite happy that the darkness in the film exists, but that is not the thesis. It’s not even the filmed intent by direction, I feel. Every dark scene is undercut with an immediate embarrassed reconciliation, or humor. This doesn’t ever really change, even when the movieness kicks in.
The third act is viewed as a narrative mess because the characters actually get together to have a conversation about what’s best for Pat and to decide his actions for him. However, let’s really look at this particular scene. We are given an awful lot of passive information prior to this segment. We witness Pat taking medication regularly, living up to his commitments, and even beginning to overcome some of his bigger issues with help. In the scene just before this one, we witness Pat refrain from getting involved in a fight for a long time, even though his brother, friends, and therapist are all involved. He finally does get involved, but for good reason. This is not the act of someone who loses control in a blind rage with a trigger, but rather the act of someone who is defending his loved ones.
We get a good glimpse of other people’s illnesses in the scene that triggers the third act. We see Pat Sr.’s OCD get incredibly out of hand, though even that is played for a laugh to some degree, and we even get to see Tiffany’s need to control and manipulate. We also get to witness Pat not associating with this, and then coming to a personal realization, and taking control of the situation in his own way. Is this a bit of “movieness”? Yes, it , but it’s not the vast out of control thematic shift that some others assume it to be. There is a gradual shift in his behavior once he starts to take his medicine, and focus on something besides his obsessions.
As a side note, the dance number is kind of fucking amazing. Yes, there’s a dance number, and it’s a major plot point.
The movie then wraps up with a moment of happiness where no one has any problems. Where’s the grittiness and the dirt? Well, if you listened to the diatribe against Hemingway, why would you be looking for it now? This is the happy ending. Yes, there is probably some worse shit down the road, but this is where the story is chosen to end. Mental illness just doesn’t magically clear up, and it’s never depicted as such in the film. This isn’t a cure-all, it’s a quiet moment of happiness. To me, it’s the perfect ending to this film given the stated intent.
Oh as a rating, I’d probably give it 3 smiley faces. Superb acting, solid direction, some movieness, but intentionally so.