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Silver Linings Playbook, Though Worthwhile, Tackles Mental Illness Without Subtlety

220px-Silver_Linings_Playbook_Poster

It's not that Silver Linings Playbook fails at what it's trying to do, exactly. It's that the film is the first of its kind, and it can't be expected to get everything right. And a movie that includes mental illness, family function and dysfunction, football, romance, and sparkly dance costumes is biting off quite a bit to chew.

Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a middle school teacher who returns to his parents' house in suburban Pennsylvania after eight months in a mental institution. He comes home against his doctors' wishes, and is still obsessed with maintaining a positive attitude, hoping his estranged wife Nikki will come back to him. "Obsessed" in this case means more than "focused on." Pat is bipolar, and his (unmedicated) manic episodes fuel his insatiable need to prepare for his hypothetical reunion with Nikki. While home, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his best friend's recently widowed sister-in-law. One terrible dinner party later, the pair realize they have some psychotropic prescriptions in common, and start (literally) running into each other in their neighborhood. It will be a great day when women prove their greatness to men in ways OTHER than memorizing a lot of sports statistics, but that's a key aspect to the two main characters' tenative friendship-building. 

Tiffany keeps her cards close to her chest, diagnosis-wise, but that doesn't stop both her and Pat from playing on each others' emotional vulnerabilities as they spend more time together. And when she does reveal part of what makes her tick (namely, how much of herself she gives to everyone around her) it's one of the most relatable speeches in the movie.

Which brings us to the problem with this movie's ambitions. In director David O'Russell's hands, mental states are sides of a coin, not points on a spectrum.

Every single character in Silver Linings Playbook seems to be wrestling with one or more serious mental disorders, and no one is talking about it. Pat's parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), for example, have worn decades-old tracks through the navigation of Pat Sr.'s addictions and compulsions. But even a startling incident of domestic violence isn't enough to crack anyone's silence about how the Official-Bipolar-Diagnosis son isn't the only one struggling.

Meanwhile, Pat and Tiffany get along so well in part because they use their various mental instabilities as conversational currency.

Silver Linings Playbook does deserve criticism for consistently avoiding the more realistic middle ground (some people have mental instabilities, some don't; some people talk about it, some don't), but it was also never aiming for it. It's a movie based on a novel with similar limitations. While this lack of subtelty misses a real opportunity, what's ambitious about the film is that it pitches a violent bipolar protagonist at an audience and asks for empathy.

Frustrating as it can be to watch, nixing nuance for a heavy-handed storyline that convinces viewers of Pat and Tiffany's humanity is forgivable. Hopefully Silver Linings is helping pave a road for future cinema, proving that films can feature sympathetic mentally ill characters and be embraced by mainstream movie-goers. 

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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I disagree...a bit.

To say that this movie is the first of its kind is only half-right, in my opinion. I can think of several films (even relatively mainstream ones) that address mental illness or that feature characters dealing with mental illness; this isn't even the first one to be nominated for Oscars. It does break new ground, maybe, in casting such big A-listers in the potentially unrelatable roles and asking the audience to fall in love with them. I think you're right to say that the movie lacks subtlety, but movie's aren't subtle. They're big and in your face, and with only 120 minutes to introduce a character and have them experience true growth, you're not going to get a lot of realism. As far as the other characters in the film, I think you're flat out wrong to say they don't talk about the other instances in mental illness. Pat, played by Cooper, in almost every scene with his father, played by De Niro, points out his father's OCD tendencies and confronts his father's violence in person and with his therapist. Whether Pat Sr.'s mental illness is dealt with or not is another story. Literally. That would be an entirely different film; he's not the protagonist. Maybe I'm being so critical of your criticism because I really loved this film, and because my father suffered for years with mental illness (including bipolar episodes) that eventually led to his suicide in 2011, and I often worry (with my therapist) that I inherited some of those traits. This movie was a very personal one, to me and to a lot of folks I know who watched it, and I think it did as good a job as it could dealing with the serious complications mental illness brings to someone's life...even if it did that within the constraints of a romance film.

Hi Ben, Thanks for reading!

Hi Ben,
Thanks for reading! I, too, took this movie personally. Writing this review pointed out to me, in fact, more of its redeeming qualities than I saw when I first starting ordering my thoughts upon leaving the theater. I went in with many of the same triggers as you, but came away NOT loving it, which I took equally as personally.
Movies about mental health are going to be hot buttons, obviously, because they're touching on, first of all, a major component of the lives of millions of people, and second of all, a component we don't get to talk about deeply or truthfully very often. (On a related note in your comment, I maintain that SLP stands apart as a major movie in which a sympathetic character states his OWN diagnosis, without fanfare. The women of "Girl, Interrupted," also know and mention their diagnoses, for example, but their characters either deny and rebel against their statuses, or disappear into them and lose relatability. I think I didn't make that clear enough, maybe; that that's what this film was first in doing.)

The mentions of OCD, yes, do happen. But OCD specifically shows up in daily conversation in real life, too, separate from any meaningful understanding of the illness. It's one of those phrases folks say that drastically overstates a quotidian situation. Someone who stacks books neatly is OCD, someone who's fastidious about grammar is a grammar Nazi, and weather that changes often is schizophrenic. That said, Pat Jr. does clearly have the background (ie, having been institutionalized) to say his dad has OC behavior with some authority. But those aren't discussions. They're accusations, they never last more than two sentences, and Pat Sr. never engages with them directly. OCD is also, to my mind, not the biggest fish Pat Sr. has to fry, psychologically speaking.

It would have been a different story, yes, to elucidate any of the other subjects touched on in this film. So why not plant the idea, and hope the next movie like this to get written digs a little deeper?

I loved this film, especially

I loved this film, especially how it looked at how their friends and family treated them. It reminded me so much of all the times when I'd feel like saying 'Hey, I realize I have more visible issues, but you treating me like I'm crazy isn't helping anything.'

There's also a great 20min short on vimeo called 'I love you like crazy' that shows a relationship developing between a person with schizophrenia and a person with borderline personality disorder in an institute setting, that focuses on the power of human connection in managing mental disability.

Hated it

Like almost every movie dealing with mental illness, Hollywood still doesn't get it.
I hated this movie. I enjoyed like, two parts. The rest was a throw-away which had the cliche ending, as well as tip-toeing around a very realistic and interesting premise.
Maybe it's just me, but I feel that mental illness itself was the only reliable one in this movie. The rest was somewhat of cheap exploitation of human misery in suffering from mental illness.

groundbreaking? every 40 years i guess

On a certain level, the 20th century was the century of mental illness and its treatments--Freud, Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Adler, and beyond. It was also the century of cinema. That's not to say many films from 20 to 100 years ago will resonate with Silver Linings Playbook, but one does come to mind: John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (~1974?). It had the similar feel of East Coast working class family a bit flummoxed by the circumstance of the wife/mother being ill/fragile/unpredictable and in, at least a borderline way, an old-school abusive situation. It didn't have the slapstick humor of Silver Linings, and I haven't seen it for many years so I can't remember the exact feeling of humor, but in the plot there was that full dimension of things being both overwhelming and occasionally darkly comical. I have been wondering whether the production of Silver Linings was consciously channeling that Cassavetes movie or if this is just gratuitous occurrence--or am I the only one who sees the connection? I recommend and will try to get another viewing of both movies.