Heart = Comedy + Drama



Date of Original Post: November 12, 2012

While in LA, Lucas and I had the delightful opportunity to go out to Thai food with a group of good friends and then to a movie. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Dinner and a movie with a group of good friends--what joy! My friends who work in the film and television industry suggested we see Silver Linings Playbook--since I am totally out of the loop, I had not heard of the film, but my friend told me it was directed by David O Russell, (director of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees & The Fighter) so I knew it was going to be intense, funny, or zany. It turned out to be all three. 

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that I adored. It was so funny, so full of heart, so sad and honest. Other films that come to mind that share some of its qualities (besides, of course, Russel’s other films) are Punch Drunk Love (in my opinion the only film by Paul Thomas Anderson that had heart)--another unlikely love story about two characters who experience a lot of pain, and therefore don’t fit so well into normal life, and Secrets and Lies (directed by the British filmmaker Mike Leigh) a highly emotional, dramatic, and manic story created with much improvisation. Perhaps what these films have in common is their raw emotion and their unclassifiable genre. They are truly funny films, because the lead characters are real and odd characters, but at the same time, they are deeply sad and uneasy films, because the characters truly suffer, and their suffering is not taken for granted or prettied up, which is what Hollywood writers and directors usually do with their suffering characters. It is not easy to pull it off--a drama-comedy. I suspect the key to a successful drama-comedy (or dramedy), is focusing on the character’s hearts. Staying close to what the characters want, and then being unbridled in the expression of those wants. Letting the audience in, so that we root so deeply for the characters that we live inside them, feeling along with them by lending them our hearts. When you get down to it, that’s how life really is--it’s both funny and tragic. Technically, a comedy ends in a marriage, and a tragedy ends in a death, but in real life, both comedy and tragedy live side by side. When you live life with a somewhat balanced perspective, you can almost always see both the tragic and the comic in any situation. When I studied and performed improvisation at Pan Theater in Oakland, the director of the theater’s philosophy was that, contrary to common opinion, the best improv is not always funny, it just has to be true. But the truth is, and this is what Del Close (the creator of Second City and the originator of improv technique) wrote about in his book, what’s true also happens to be what’s funny. As improvisers (and as actors in general) we were always encouraged to be honest, and told to never try to be funny. The more honest I was in my improvs, in other words: the more I used my true feelings and actual details from my life, the funnier the improvs would be. 

In Silver Linings Playbook, the main character, Pat, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, (what used to be referred to as manic depressive) and has just spent 8 months in a mental institution because of a violent incident. I don’t want to give the plot away, as it was so enjoyable for me to watch with out knowing anything about the film ahead of time. Let’s just say it wasn’t hard to empathize with Pat, even if he can be explosive and violent and lacks social grace at times. He was running around with a bleeding, broken heart--and his family and friends stood by him, as they tried, at the same time, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep him out of trouble. When Pat meets Tiffany, time stops, and we fall in love with her before Pat knows what’s going on. Tiffany is also suffering a loss, and her suffering, as well as her natural personality, makes her raw, brutally honest, and terribly funny. It is she who brings dance for its own sake, to Pat as a form of therapy, romance and possible salvation.

I find the emotional honesty, created by either lack of social skills or spiritual urgency, of certain characters with mental illness to be refreshingly exhilarating to witness. There is some part of me that relates to that emotional rawness and romanticizes how freeing it might feel to have no choice but to express the emotional truth inside. Watching people express their craziness (in this case, intense fear, desire, rage) while scary at times, is also strangely comforting to me. They are expressing the truths, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the people around them, that most people try so hard to keep hidden. The two main characters, given a combination of their particular genetic makeup, and life circumstances, are just a little bit too sensitive to live life as most “normal people” do, and yet, “normal people” are really only a few points more self-contained on the same scale of humanity. I guess what I am trying to say is that when people have the courage or lack of control to wear their heart on their sleeve, (weather due to mental illness, being a child, or just being highly sensitive) I feel compelled to protect their hearts. When a movie or a book dares to express this same large-hearted emotional honesty, I want to share it with the world. 

I’d like to add one more note about Silver Linings Playbook--all the performances are brilliant and touching, especially the two leads played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (who is a revelation). The film also features an exceptional performance by Robert DeNiro, who plays Pat’s father. I have never seen Robert DeNiro this vulnerable before.  Russell was somehow able to get through Robert DeNiro’s Robert DeNiro-ness, and helped him to reveal a flawed, sad, and well-meaning father with a violent past.

The illustration above is my tag line for a theme in the film, which you will understand (I hope) if/when you see the film.

By the way, I didn’t end up making that American Apparel order.