The first time Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), one of the stars in Silver Linings Playbook, appears on screen, she’s wearing a cross. I figured it was a token inclusion, Hollywood’s nod to that part of America for whom traditional religion still means something. But I was wrong. Though the director may not have intended it, the cross was not a ploy; it was the foreshadowing of an allegory steeped in Christian themes, making Silver Linings Playbook an unexpected gift for those seeking faith in film.
It begins with the characters. The movie presents flawed and broken individuals, people who are trying hard, but cannot seem to get the hang of life. As the movie opens, protagonist Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital. He’s bipolar, but refuses to take his medication. Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert Deniro), recently lost his pension and relies on bookmaking to make ends meet. He anguishes over his paternal failings—he cries with guilt over Pat Jr.’s tantrums—and has a devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles fueled by superstition. Tiffany emerges grieving the death of her husband and tries to fill the emptiness in her heart with equally empty sexual encounters. The list goes on: Almost everyone we meet seems to be carrying some kind of compulsion or inner turmoil.
They are confused, they are broken, they are us. They are Peter denying Jesus and the rest of the apostles fighting over who’s first. They are the Gerasene demoniac and the paralytic dropped through the roof. They are the collection of sinners who prompted Jesus to say, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” And though their neuroses can be funny, the humor aims at something grave. A telling scene: On Halloween, Tiffany and Pat meet at a diner, ostensibly to eat but in reality to connect, to try to figure each other out. But they arrive tense and feisty. Then the waitress shows up: she’s dressed in costume. As a devil. Her pen is a pitchfork.
It is a brilliant scene for how much it simultaneously conveys. It is ironic, cruel and funny. For the waitress, the devil is garb to mark a holiday. But her insouciance only highlights how serious a matter the devil is: In the glare of Pat and Tiffany, we know the demonic is no costume. Evil lurks, both without and within. It may come as a disguise, but the disguise is a disguise. The movie’s irony makes it clear: Unless you’re vigilant, the devil will be right there, ready to take your order.
Much of the rest of the movie is a prolonged exorcism. It is about expelling demons. For Pat and Tiffany, this starts with a return: in this case, a return home to live with their parents. Even as adults, both need a childlike environment of family and familiarity. The arc of their story calls to mind the exile and return of the prodigal son. Determined to shun a “life of dissipation,” they must now shed the thinking that traps them in guilt and isolation. As modeled by the father in the parable, the path to renewal begins not with rebuke, but with embrace. In one threshold moment, after Pat demeans Tiffany for her promiscuity, she admits it and then says, “There’s always gonna be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that, with all the other parts of myself. . . . Can you forgive? Are you any good at that?”
Similar to Good Will Hunting (1997), Silver Linings Playbook is fundamentally about uncertainty: the existential uncertainty of the human condition. The grimaces, the shouts, the tears, and the breakdowns reveal basically good pilgrims pushed to a border, beyond which there is only fear. Faced with this darkness, the movie asks: In what will we place our trust? Various answers are proposed: therapy, money, sports, medication and even good ol’ fashioned denial. But one by one, those solutions recede and the movie’s storyline spotlights another way. That way begins with the piercing eyes of Tiffany—and later, with her soldierly unwillingness to validate giving up.
In short, Pat’s redemption does not come from the Philadelphia Eagles or a cocktail of anti-depressants. It comes from the love embodied by persons, most of all Tiffany and Pat’s family. They bear, they believe, they hope, and they endure. It is they who are the silver lining—a lining of which St. Paul would be quite proud.
Matt Emerson’s essays have appeared in America, Commonweal, First Things, and on Patheos. He directs admissions and teaches theology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, California. He writes at www.ignatianeducator.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.