Are “Smart Movies” Really All That Smart?

Are “Smart Movies” Really All That Smart?

“I feel like that was the kind of movie people call ‘smart,'” said my girlfriend, shaking her head, as we walked out of a Silver Linings Playbook screening. “Like, ‘That movie is so smart about mental illness.'”

What makes Silver Linings Playbook “smart”? Well, it’s based on a novel, and “smart” people read books. It stars Jennifer Lawrence, a “smart,” no-nonsense actress. It’s written and directed by David O. Russell, the hipster in hornrims who was responsible for “smart” flicks like Flirting With Disaster, Three KingsThe Fighter, and I ♥ Huckabees, a film you can’t even write about unless you’re smart enough to figure out how to type a heart.

But is Silver Linings Playbook really all that smart? It’s about people living with bipolar disorder, a complicated illness that can be immensely difficult to understand and treat, but in the end, the characters are able to effectively overcome their illness with a handful of meds, a little self-forgiveness, and a lot of good old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness. No doubt that’s how it works for some bipolar patients, which is wonderful, but it hardly seems like the “smartest” way to depict an illness that many have to fight for their entire lives, changing strategies and medications from year to year or even month to month.

Of course, the fact that the therapist of Bradley Cooper’s character—in violation of basic professional ethics—becomes his patient’s good pal outside of the office is a flag that indicates the truth: this movie isn’t really about mental illness, it just uses mental illness to excuse itself for having an Idiot Plot, an expression coined by Roger Ebert for “a plot that requires all the characters to be idiots. If they weren’t, they’d immediately figure everything out and the movie would be over.” The star-crossed romance between Cooper and Lawrence—who take a convenient two hours of screen time to figure out they were obviously made for each other—is something we’ve seen a thousand times before, but this time at least Russell is “smart” enough to throw some mental illness in there to explain their implausible cluelessness.

Another “smart” movie that scooped some Oscar nominations is Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that’s beautifully shot and is formally more experimental than Silver Linings Playbook—which could more accurately be called Dirty Dancing Playbook, complete with the learning-to-dance-and-falling-in-love musical montage set to a golden oldie—but that feels a lot “smarter” than it actually is.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, like Silver Linings Playbook, deals with a Big Issue: in the case of Beasts, it’s the vulnerability of poor communities. But instead of choosing a realistic setting with authentically thorny dimensions of class and race, filmmaker Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar portray a fictional shantytown where a racially integrated group of friendly folk live in proudly defiant harmony, deliberately and happily isolated from mainstream society. Is that “smart,” or wishful thinking?

You rarely hear movies like What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Beverly Hills Cop called “smart,” but the various pregnancy stories in What to Expect are a lot smarter about relationships and life choices than Silver Linings Playbook is, and back in 1984 Beverly Hills Cop cut close enough to the bone that establishment critics couldn’t agree as to whether it was offensively “whitey-baiting” (Pauline Kael in The New Yorker) or “one of the most sophisticated motion pictures ever made in terms of the interaction between whites and blacks” (Leonard Feather in the Los Angeles Times).

You’re not supposed to look at the top of box office charts for “smart” movies, but maybe you should. Maybe once in a while, all those people scarfing nachos at the multiplex know something the hipsters munching their organic popcorn at the indie houses don’t.

Jay Gabler