Story Structure: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Screenplay by David O. Russell Based on the novel by Matthew Quick

Introduction:  Like a lot of good films, this is one that rewards repeated viewings.  I enjoyed this film when I first saw it in the theater; it was well structured and was also overflowing with rich and interesting characters.  But when I assigned it as a Film of the Week for a recent screenwriting class, I found that it was perhaps even better than I had realized on first viewing.  There is great conflict in virtually every scene and drama, comedy and emotion are mixed together in a blend that is not only rare, but absolutely riveting.  Another interesting thing about the film is that, because the characters are so rich and complex, Act I is longer than usual as it takes its time to develop the characters fully.  But, just because it is long, doesn’t make it in the slightest bit slow, primarily because each scene has moments of high conflict over the smallest, yet most human, of issues.

Who’s Story Is It? Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper)
 
Act Structure: 3 Act

Act I Basic Action:
Pat Solatano, Jr. is first seen as a patient in a psychiatric facility in which he has been held for the past eight months following a mental breakdown.  Pat is an unhappy patient, obsessed with his ex-wife, and resisting treatment by spitting out his medication when the nurse isn’t looking.  His mother, Dolores Solatano (Jacki Weaver) checks him out of the facility apparently without the approval of his doctor.  Another patient, Danny McDaniels (Chris Tucker) a friend of Pat's, hitches a ride with them, but is found out and returned.  Pat settles into his parent’s home where he is welcomed by his father Pat Solatano, Sr. (Robert De Niro) who is accepting but somewhat distant.  We learn that Pat Sr. has recently lost his job and is making a living as a sports bookmaker while he plans to open a restaurant.  Pat Sr. is also a fanatical fan of the Philadelphia Eagles and may have mental issues of his own in his obsessive-compulsive behavior during games.  Pat Jr. is anxious to resume his former life, getting his old job as a teacher back, as well as rekindling a relationship with his ex-wife, Nikki.  Pat believes that he is close to being cured of his mental illness and uses the word “excelsior” as his motto, turning negative experiences into silver linings.  But Pat Sr. reminds Pat that his ex-wife Nikki has moved away and even has a restraining order against him, forbidding contact in any way.  Through a number of scenes we also see that Pat is far from realizing a normal life.  He is obsessed with re-connecting with his ex-wife and reads the books she assigns her students as a way of understanding her.  But when a novel by Hemingway has an unhappy ending, Pat goes on a tirade in the middle of the night, awakening and frightening his parents.  During a subsequent late night episode when he can’t find his wedding video, Pat causes such a disturbance that the police are called and he meets Officer Keogh, who has been assigned to watch him and possibly return him to the institution.  While visiting his therapist, Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher) Pat flips out when the song “My Cherie Amour” plays in the waiting room.  We find that this is a test by Dr. Patel who is trying to see if the song is still an emotional trigger, as it held a special meaning for Pat and Nikki.  We learn that Pat was committed after finding his wife having an affair with a history teacher who Pat subsequently beat nearly to death.  Another obsession is Pat’s daily work-out; he has apparently lost a great deal of weight since he was first committed and now goes for daily runs in the neighborhood.  On one such run, he meets his old friend Ronnie (John Ortiz). 

Inciting Event 1: Pat is invited to dinner by Ronnie and his wife Veronica (Julia Stiles).  There, he meets Veronica’s sister Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), who is also psychologically damaged following the recent death of her husband.  They leave dinner early, and Pat walks Tiffany home.  We see that Tiffany has a simultaneous attraction as well as a disdain for Pat as she challenges him, telling him that he says inappropriate things and has poor social skills.  She then comes on to him, but then rejects him with a slap to the face. 

While out running the next day, Pat encounters Tiffany, likewise out for her own run and she won’t apparently leave him alone.  After a couple of such encounters, Pat offers to take her to dinner at a local diner.

Inciting Event 2: While at dinner, Tiffany reveals that she sometimes sees Nikki at Veronica’s house, and believes that she can get a letter from Pat to Nikki when Veronica isn’t looking.

Act I Turning Point: Pat decides to use Tiffany as a means of getting to Nikki and re-connecting with her.   However, his decision is complicated by Tiffany’s realization that she too often gives of herself while getting nothing in return.  This time, she vows, it’s going to be different.  If Pat wants to use her to get a letter to Nikki, he has to do something in return – become Tiffany’s partner at a dance competition next month.  Pat decides to do it.

Act II Basic Action: Pat begins dancing with Tiffany at the studio she has had built in the garage behind her parent’s house where she also lives.  Pat is not a very good dancer, and not particularly interested in learning, but goes along with it because he has accepted Tiffany’s deal.  They’re visited by Danny, recently released from the institution.  Danny gives them a lesson in moving their bodies with a bit more soul.  Tiffany and Pat practice their “big move” which involves her jumping onto him as he holds her aloft, but it doesn’t go well.  They have a long way to go before they’re ready for competition.  Tiffany gives Pat a letter that she says came from Nikki.  In the letter, Nikki tells Pat that she needs to see something positive in him to prove he is ready to resume their relationship.  Things get complicated for Pat when Pat Sr. comes to him with a serious request.  Pat Sr. sees his son as a good luck charm and wants him to go to an Eagles game on which he has placed a heavy bet.  But this game conflicts with a dance rehearsal that Pat had promised Tiffany.  Pat goes to the game with his brother Jake (Shea Whigham), and at the game meets Dr. Patel, also a big Eagles fan.  But a fight breaks out, and Pat can’t keep himself from joining in.  They are all ejected from the stadium, the Eagles subsequently lose to the Giants, and Pat Sr. loses his big bet to his “friend” Randy (Paul Herman).

Hero's Low Point: Tiffany arrives at the Solatano home, furious that Pat skipped their rehearsal to attend the game.  She tells Pat Sr. that he’s been reading the good luck signs all wrong and that, in fact, Philadelphia teams do better when she and Pat are together rehearsing.  She convinces Pat Sr., but Pat wants no part of it.  He tells Tiffany that he’s quitting and walks out of the house.

Act II Turning Point: Convinced that Tiffany is right about the good luck signs, Pat Sr. and his wife Dolores agree to do a white lie and tell Pat that Nikki will be at the dance competition.  Simultaneously, Pat re-reads the letter from Nikki where she asks for a positive sign.  He comes back into the house and says that he’s decided to resume practice.  He will go through with the dance competition because Nikki will be there.

Act III Basic Action: The issue of the dance competition is complicated further when Pat Sr. makes a double or nothing parley bet with Randy.  Two things have to happen: the Eagles have to beat the Cowboys and Pat and Tiffany have to score at least a 5 out of 10 at the dance competition.  After more practice, Pat, Tiffany and his family arrive at the competition.  They are surprised to see how good the other dancers are.  It’s going to be hard to get a decent score.  Meanwhile, Tiffany is shocked and angered to see Nikki arrive with Veronica and Ronnie.  She tells them that they’re killing her by bringing Nikki as it will distract Pat.  But what’s also obvious is that she is now in love with him.  She goes to the bar and starts bitterly drinking with a stranger.  Pat Sr. is thrilled to see the first half of the parley work out as the Eagles beat the Cowboys.  Pat goes to Tiffany at the bar and rescues her from her worst instincts as their names are announced for competition.  They begin the dance.  Some of it is good, some not so good, but they press on, undaunted.  They muff the big finish, but are thrilled to see that, at the end, have received a score of 5.0, good enough to complete the second half of the parley.  But joy quickly turns to sorrow as Pat leaves Tiffany, goes to Nikki and embraces her.  Tiffany, her heart broken, runs away onto the street.  Pat follows after her, and, in a reverse of their earlier encounters, catches her.  He tells her that he knew she wrote the letter, not Nikki.  And he also tells her that he loves her and hands her his own letter that he wrote a week previous.

Denouement: Sunday afternoon at the Solatano house.  We see Pat Sr. happily enjoying an Eagles game on TV while Dolores is baking snacks in the kitchen.  Danny and Jake are there along with Ronnie and Veronica.  Then we see Pat and Tiffany embracing and kissing, neither of them are wearing their old wedding rings. 

Hero’s Outer Need: To re-connect with his ex-wife Nikki by proving he is no longer ill.  This is an interesting Outer Need, in that while it is something the hero pursues, it is not the thing that he really needs, or ultimately achieves.  Later, in Act III, the Outer Need becomes scoring well at the dance competition in order to prove himself to Tiffany. 

Hero’s Inner Need: To put his past relationship with Nikki behind him and realize a better relationship, one that has a future, with Tiffany.

Subplots: Pat Sr.’s plan to open a restaurant, his penchant for irresponsible sports betting along with his own obsessive compulsive disorder, Ronnie and his troubled relationship with his smothering wife Veronica (exactly the opposite relationship from that of Pat and Nikki), Dolores and her later-revealed conspiracy with Tiffany to distract Pat from his obsession with Nikki, the nosy neighbor who wants to develop a documentary on the mental illness of the people next door, Nancy, the school principal who wants nothing to do with Pat.

Theme:  Sometimes, what you want isn’t really what you need. 

Central Question: Can Pat ever leave behind his obsession with his ex-wife and develop a relationship with Tiffany?

Opponent: The opponent in this story is not manifest in another character.  It is situational as Pat’s opponent is internal -- conquering his illness and having a normal life, perhaps for the first time.  The only apparent opponent is police officer Keogh who might potentially return Pat to the institution.

Allies: Virtually all of the other characters are Pat’s allies in one way or the other, although their methods of assisting him might not exactly be helping him. 

The MacGuffin: Pat's ex-wife Nikki (Brea Bee).

Posted: 10.30.14


In the other files in this section, I have done an analysis of the story structures of several feature films.  My hope is that if you've learned something from this dialogue that you will show your appreciation by picking up my newest novel (link below).  And then let me know what you think of its structure! 

Houdini & Lovecraft The Ghost Writer