Watching “Silver Linings Playbook”
“Silver Linings Playbook” is a movie that rings true, even when it’s absolutely absurd. This is a movie that gets the details right, while involving its characters in ridiculous plot twists straight out of a classic screwball comedy. It’s one of those rare movies that manages to be both contrived and utterly genuine. There’s a reason that my friend Hanna’s brother, who has bipolar disorder, called it the best depiction of bipolar disorder that he had ever seen on film.
“Silver Linings Playbook” tells the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), who has spent the past eight months in a mental health facility after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death. Pat has bipolar disorder, but he refuses to take his medication, saying it makes him foggy; during the film’s opening scenes, we see him spitting a pill onto the floor of the hospital. I think this was when the movie won me over, because I’ve had numerous conversations with mentally ill friends about why they do not want to take their medication.
Pat’s return home does not go smoothly: Despite the restraining order against him, he is determined to get in touch with his wife and show her that he’s changed, and he wakes up his parents, played by Robert De Niro, in his best role in years, and Jacki Weaver, in the middle of the night to rant about Ernest Hemingway. (Pat is deeply disappointing by the ending of “A Farewell to Arms.”) After visiting the school where he used to work, the local beat cop lets Pat know that he’s got his eye on him.
Things begin to change when Pat goes to a dinner party at an old friend’s, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has a few mental health issues of her own. (In one hilarious scene, Pat and Tiffany discuss the effects of heavy-duty mental health drugs such as lithium while their hosts look on in horror.) At this point, the movie transitions into a romantic comedy, albeit an extremely off-kilter romantic comedy, about people who can barely function. Tiffany promises to get in touch with Pat’s ex-wife, but only if Pat will develop a dance routine with her and compete in a local pairs competition. Meanwhile, Pat’s father is working illegally as a bookmaker and making huge bets on Philadelphia Eagles games; as the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that he has a gambling problem and that his Eagles fandom is an unhealthy obsession. (He can no longer attend Eagles games, having been banned from the stadium for fighting.)
Director David O. Russell excels in making movies about quirky, dysfunctional people; his last film, “The Fighter,” told the story of an up-and-coming boxer and his crazy family, while his debut, “Spanking the Monkey,” centered upon an incestuous mother-son relationship. (I won’t even attempt to describe his 2004 film “I Heart Huckabees,” which stars Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as existential detectives investigating the meaning of life.)
What makes Russell interesting is his lack of didacticism; he wants to celebrate his characters, not condemn or critique them or offer a prescription for how to live. Pat’s life begins getting better once he starts taking his medication (a process that begins after a late-night meltdown in which he accidentally hits his mother and knocks her over), but Russell doesn’t over-emphasize this development, rightly keeping the movie focused on Pat’s interactions with Tiffany, his parents and his therapist. One of the film’s biggest achievements is making viewers feel as if they are experiencing Pat’s highs and lows, his wildly intense mood swings and states of mind.
“Silver Linings Playbook” builds toward a “big game” moment, as many films do, centered on the outcome of the Eagles-New York Giants game and the dance competition. Much of what happens in the final third of the film is preposterous, but I didn’t care; at that point, I felt the film had more than earned the right to do whatever it wanted, and that I couldn’t possibly begrudge David O. Russell his feel-good, shamelessly romantic ending. (Although I do wish SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! he had kept Pat’s ex-wife out of the picture entirely; I simply did not believe that this woman would show up at the dance competition, or that Pat would handle it with such equanimity.)
What makes the film work is the cast, which is uniformly excellent. I’ve never much cared for Bradley Cooper, but he’s terrific here, as is Jennifer Lawrence. Jacki Weaver, as Pat’s mom, deserves special mention; she’s very funny and also quite touching as the wife, mother and caretaker of difficult men.
Some, such as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, have criticized “Silver Linings Playbook,” saying that the film suggests that mental illness can be overcome through force of will and positive thinking. I didn’t see it that way at all, especially because Pat winds up taking his medication. What the film does suggest, I think, is that managing a debilitating mental health condition such as bipolar disorder is contingent on a number of factors, including therapy, the support of family and friends, effective coping strategies, a hopeful attitude and, yes, medication.
One of the things that really rang true to me was Pat’s constant exercising, which was easy to write off as a joke, until I remembered that I have at least two friends who cope with depression by exercising a lot. (One of them has become a very good marathon runner.)
In the end, “Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t so much a film about mental illness as the messiness of life and the challenge of finding someone to love. The film is hilarious (although it’s possible I found it more hilarious than the average moviegoer), but also quite moving, and it builds to a satisfyingly emotional conclusion. Sure, the ending is a little contrived and a little implausible, but whatever. I don’t see any reason why Pat and Tiffany’s mental health challenges should exclude them from the possibility of a happy ending that the movies have always held out hope for, and I won’t forget the happy and joyous closing scenes of “Silver Linings Playbook” for a long time.
FYI: If I were going to revise my top 10 list of movies released in 2012, I would bump “Argo” off the list, and put “Silver Linings Playbook” on it.
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