February 10, 2013

Ending the Tyranny of Normal

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The nine films nominated for Best Picture this year are all pretty spectacular. Quentin Tarantino finally seems to have garnered the recognition his fans all know he deserves with Django Unchained. Daniel Day-Lewis, as most critics have noted, embodies the title character of Lincoln so fully that for the length of the film, most of us forget we have little to no working knowledge of what the President was actually like. And Ang Lee’s poetic mastery of the moving image shines in Life of Pi, a book-to-film translation that, against all odds, does justice to Yann Martel’s brilliant prose. But the one film that I am really pulling for, despite an admittedly uphill battle against its competitors, is David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.

Silver Linings tells the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) as he leaves his mental health facility and attempts to win back his wife, English teacher Nikki (Brea Bee), by studying her curriculum and crudely navigating around her restraining order. Despite being released from the facility, Pat is still mentally unstable, aggressive, prone to outbursts and intimidation and uncompromisingly loyal to his friends, family, and girlfriends. It seems clear early on that Nikki and Pat are not meant to be, especially when he befriends Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), another mentally unstable character who is herself climbing out of a manic episode following the death of her former husband. After a tumultuous start, the two become friends, forming an unlikely and bizarre bond over their mutual distaste for the reality that surrounds them.

In a symbolic scene early in the film, Pat is up late at night, reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the book currently assigned to his wife’s class. When he finishes, he slams the book shut and tosses it out the window, shattering the glass and waking up his parents as he proceeds to scream about how unsatisfying he found the classic tale. Because of his own romantic difficulties, Pat spits in the face of this tragic love story and, unwittingly, proceeds to form his own, falling into an unlikely relationship — especially so given the norms governing Blockbuster dramas like Silver Linings.

Jeffrey Eugenides also problematized the classic love story in his ironically titled 2011 bestseller, The Marriage Plot. The novel tells the story of self-indulgent romantic Brown University English-major, Madeleine, a who constantly flips through the pages of her dog-eared copy of  Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. No matter how hard she tries to choreograph her perfect love story, she finds herself constantly coming up short, falling for a troubled genius with manic depression, making drunken mistakes with her most pretentious classmate and rejecting her secret-admirer outright despite his undying affection. As if to symbolize Eugenides own rebellion, Madeleine finishes The Marriage Plot a single woman, having rejected nearly every other man in the book.

Both of these works represent a huge shift away from the typical love story. 30 or 40 years ago, imagining a romance about two people with bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia might have seemed cruel satire. But both The Marriage Plot and Silver Linings Playbook are deeply romantic — both stories emphasize their own seriousness, as if to suggest that the only way to be “crazy in love” is to actually be crazy. Maybe our hyper-entertained culture has simply grown tired of love stories between, ugh, normal people (insert sarcastic voice here), or maybe we’ve begun to deconstruct what normal really is. In the age of online dating, where people seem more likely to end up married to someone they met on eHarmony than in high school, Russell and Eugenides suggest that love doesn’t need some pristine vessel to be romantic. There’s something pretty fantastic about the love story wherever you manage to find it.

In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook and at the theater in Aurora, Colorado, our country’s dialogue about mental health seems to have taken a sour turn. Of course, a small minority of mentally ill people is indeed violent and these people need help wherever they can get it. But we must remember, no matter how boorishly Congressional committees frame the debate, that we are not a society of normal people and outcasts. Upon further examination, normalcy becomes a façade, perhaps suitable for the Oscars of yesteryear, but unfit for us twenty-first century critics. Though Pat or Tiffany might have indeed been troubled in a negative sense, their romantic success reminds us of the need to instigate a coup against the tyranny of normal. Both characters triumph against the antagonists within themselves and win the audience’s admiration in the process. Though we may be more mentally sound than these characters, we are by no means morally superior.

Though I know he faces stiff competition, I will be rooting for Mr. Russell on Oscar night. He navigated this story terrifically.

Original Author: Adam Lerner