Most movies dealing with mental illness portray it in one of two fashions: as kooky personality quirks to be embraced and even celebrated or as a self-imposed, melodramatic hurdle that can be fixed with a magical pill. The problem with these approaches is that they reduce a life-long issue to a series of plot devices, dismissing the humanity of either the suffering friends and family, who deserve better than to be called bigots for finding paranoid delusions and extreme mood swings a bit taxing, or the unbalanced person for whom, lest we forget, sanity comes at the price of his or her very sense of self.
Silver Linings Playbook avoids both pitfalls, making it one of the most valuable films to date on the subject. That writer-director David O. Russel would follow the rom-com tradition, which specialises in excusing dysfunctional behaviour as a mere misunderstanding or “rough patch”, seems almost fitting. It’s the sort of deconstructionist edge that can turn an indie production into a major dark horse at the Oscars. However, what I appreciate most about the sure-fire critical darling is its insight about human nature, not other movies.
Based on the novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook tells of Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former high school teacher whose undiagnosed bipolar disorder reaches new self-destructive heights after he catches his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) having sex with a hated colleague to their wedding song no less. Given what the aforementioned colleague has the nerve to say, I think anyone would’ve flipped his lid, but that’s the point. Now our hero goes into violent tantrums every time he listens to “My Cherie Amour”, which he sometimes hears even when it’s not playing. Incidentally, this proves an ingenious device to keep us apprised of his state of mind without Cooper having to act all twitchy, which the mentally ill never do in real life.
Obsessed with fixing his marriage, Pat enlists the help of a clinically depressed nymphomaniac, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who agrees to sneak a love letter past Nikki’s restraining order if he’ll serve as her dance partner in a local ballroom competition. Really, she just wants companionship and finds they have a lot in common, such as firsthand knowledge of psychiatric drugs. Let it be known that Lawrence has never played a character I didn’t find fascinating, save perhaps for that redheaded Smurfette in X-Men: First Class (2011). Here she portrays a lost soul incapable of connecting with others without simultaneously pushing them away, and I like how the film slowly reveals her emotional struggle, which started long before her husband’s passing.
Permeating dysfunction turns out a recurring theme in Silver Linings Playbook. Take, for example, the way Pat Sr (Robert De Niro) attaches important life decisions to sporting events and then ensures every household item is in the right place to favour the football gods. His loving wife (Jacki Weaver) calls it superstition, but we know he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. At first, I thought Russell aimed to show how quickly loved ones look the other way when it comes to mental illness. However, throwaway moments like the one in which a nerve-racked Tiffany keeps changing her partner’s tie hint at a subtler message about our likeness to folk like her and Pat.
Consider how our hero’s best bud, Ronnie (John Ortiz), bottles his matrimonial frustrations, hiding in the garage to blast heavy metal music and smash random objects. We recognise such behaviour as fundamentally irrational, yet who among us doesn’t partake in similar activities from time to time? By the same token, we’ve all, at some point, had a one-night stand to get over someone or snapped at a friend because of some deep-seeded insecurity. The only difference lies in Tiffany doing it systematically the same way Pat remains in a constant state of “garage smash”.
If you’re skeptical about the analogy, keep in mind that every aspect of Silver Linings Playbook feels genuine, from Chris Tucker’s career-reviving performance as a compulsive liar who keeps escaping the psychiatric ward to the awkward way our protagonist is greeted by his older brother (Shea Whigham). Also consider how Officer Keogh (Dash Mihok), responsible for enforcing Nikki’s restraining order, stacks the deck against Pat without ever seeming unfair. Our heroes don’t need an artificial antagonist or “idiot plot” misunderstanding. They’ve got real problems. As a result, we root for them wholeheartedly by the time they fall in love.
Whereas most movies dealing with mental illness invite us to be more accepting of helpless weirdos, this one actually gives us the tools to understand these troubled souls as human beings. I realise that, by praising a rom-com in terms of its social message, I run the risk of making it come across like Buckley’s cough syrup: “It tastes awful, but it works!” Therein, though, lies the beauty of Silver Linings Playbook, which, unlike a certain Hemingway book, left me full of hope and joy. I laughed a lot during the film, too, but always with the characters, never at them. That, to me, is true acceptance.