Last week I finally saw Silver Linings Playbook (it’s on Netflix now), and its acclaim is well-deserved. Flannery O’Connor once observed the American reader’s low tolerance for darkness and pain, criticizing audiences for wanting redemption with no fall, a linear escalation of comfort. Many or most American rom-coms pander to the happy unreality viewers demand of these sorts of movies, but SLP shows life as it really is, not cute contretemps in the rain but fights, screaming and rage and near-insanity. And it shows genuine emotional pain, too: not the temporary inconvenience of someone who must wait another 90 minutes for the big kiss, but the desperation of someone in utter despair about ever being at peace.

Love flows from vision, and the vision of SLP is broad, comprehensive. It does not find goodness merely in the high points, but by acknowledging the existence of real lows, it places even them under the umbrella of (cinematic) providence. And it finds beauty even in characters who are afflicted, estranged from family and friends, and deeply bereaved. It deserved praise for that; by some criteria it could even be considered Christian. Finding beauty and value in the outcast permeates the Bible, from King David to Christ’s self-identification with people poor, sick, hungry, naked, and in prison. In identifying with those on the outside, there’s the slightest taste of God’s love for us.

Despite Silver Linings Playbook‘s welcome change from the rom-com template, there’s some distance left to go before we get to a really authentic, un-glamorous, grounded romantic comedy. If that “crazy slut with a dead husband” (her words) is lovable, maybe I am too… wait, she looks suspiciously like Jennifer Lawrence. And while some attempts are made to ground her beauty, we’re a long way from the actress absconditus of classics like Now, Voyager or even The African QueenBut it’s not just the obvious physical beauty of Lawrence and Cooper; it’s also this obviously appealing quirkiness. The non-cliche, offbeat and slightly introverted brunette was done to great effect in Freaks and Geeks, but it’s becoming a worn trope pretty quickly. If the horse wasn’t dead already, Safety Not Guaranteed pretty much killed it. A good number of indie-ish films have pushed back on the conformist sweet-blonde-girl-who-also-has-a-fun-streak mold for female protagonists, as well as the conformist self-assured-and-rugged-yet-refined male protagonist mold, but nonconformity is becoming its own law pretty quickly. Which is to say, it’s a burden. I may not aspire to the professional prospects or mental instability of Bradley Cooper in SLP, but his character’s originality, the excitement of his life, his near-total uninhibitedness… part of the film’s appeal certainly comes from the fact that, in some sense, these characters are models of something many of us viewers want.


A movie like The African Queen isn’t remembered because it’s deep or artsy or experimental – a common misconception about older films – but it’s remembered because it’s not any of those things, but it’s still somehow high-quality. While something like Silver Linings Playbook seems pioneering in the romance genre, and it is in certain ways, it’s also in part a particularly well-done example of a trend that’s been going on for a while. When Jennifer Lawrence starts rattling off the Eagles’ record a little past the halfway mark, the curtain’s pulled back a little and parts of the screenplay, as it turns out, were conventional all along: girl wins over boyfriend’s dad on account of her surprising football knowledge, despite the fact that she’s a girl, and she doesn’t seem to be into that kind of thing.

For whatever reason, whether a fierce determination to break cliches or just a general restlessness, ‘weird’ in our culture has become the new normal: saying “I guess I’m just weird” has almost passed from humblebragging to straight-up bragging, hip soccer parents might sport a “Keep Austin Weird” bumper-sticker on the back of their Suburban, and at college/young adult parties you might hear “Let’s get weird tonight” several times.

It’s wonderful that weirdness enjoys more widespread cultural affirmation now. For one thing, it’s freeing; for another, it’s interesting for those around you: “If you’re not weird, you’re boring”, a friend of mine used to say in college, and I mostly agree. But it’s also symptomatic of an increasing fixation on unique self-expression and individuality. Long accepted in fringe circles, like the literary elite or artists or quirky biology professors, as weirdness becomes a more mainstream value those who feel free to self-express will lose some of their distinctness. There’s a danger of turning inward, too, trying to fine-tune my distinct self-expression and engineer spontaneity or uninhibitedness. Which, of course, is self-defeating.

It seems the two values which lie behind weirdness are stimulation/interest – what’s she gonna say/do next?! – and freedom to actually self-express. The second value might look similar to engineered weirdness, but the two are actually opposite in motivation: one springs from the freedom which comes from feeling loved, and the other from a carefully-controlled attempt to make oneself loveworthy. If you’re reading the signs from a Law-Gospel perspective, weirdness will likely become burdensome in the near future. A guy who tries to be really macho now draws derision because that law/ideal is so outdated; we recognize it for the trying-hard-to-craft-an-identity that it is. Weirdness as an ideal may soon become burdensome and, further on in its cultural life-cycle, cliched. The identity management and individualism which drive much of the trend aren’t going anywhere soon.

A few practical applications from thinking about this trend come to mind. First, if you live in a ‘weird’ town like Austin or East Nashville, work an afternoon at Starbucks – you’re guaranteed to feel some relief, a la Percy’s moviegoer in the suburbs. Second, it’s good to remember the examples of the old movies (excluding Breakfast at Tiffany’s): it’s possible to create full characters, with plenty of personality and color, in subtle tones rather than bright ones. Particularly in evaluating movies, we’ve somewhat lost track of the fact that creating a normal character with a distinct personality is more difficult than making a lovably ‘weird’ one. Beauty, appeal, and distinction can reliably be found in the mundane, and that’s perhaps even a Christian value, the “least of these” by the emerging weirdness standard. And finally, there’s a slight chance that the law of distinct self-expression may yield more freedom to talk about a particular arena of weirdness: our weaknesses, failures, and sins. Here’s to a confessional 2015.