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Silver Linings Playbook

November 26, 2012
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Psychiatry is, to me, a fascinating subject, but mental illness is so often maligned and mis-represented in the popular media. However, from the first trailers I saw of this, I hoped for something different. I also hoped that it would be interesting. Silver Linings Playbook succeeds on both counts.

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Silver Linings Playbook is a film about mental illness, romance, American football and dancing. After being released from a psychiatric hospital, Pat (Bradley Cooper) returns home to rebuild his life, with the purpose of restarting his marriage to Nikki. Things became difficult between them when he nearly beat to death her naked lover, was sectioned and she filed a restraining order. To Pat, it’s just a rough patch though.

As he reintegrates back into his neighbourhood, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed family friend. As a depressive reaction to her husband’s death, she slept with everyone in her office; because of this, she has something of a reputation around town. Though initially quite prickly to each other, the two strike up a friendship, debating who is the crazier person.

Ah yes, the mental illness. Pat has bipolar affective disorder (or manic depression, if you must) and is reluctant to take medication, instead, trying to remain well with exercise and 20th century literature. Meanwhile, Tiffany has major (or unipolar) depression. They joke about being crazy, compare notes on their medications and recognise that society is fake and hypocritical, while they are more true and genuine.

I’m no psychiatrist so I can’t comment greatly on their diagnoses, but from what I do know, they appear fairly accurate. Which, for Hollywood, is really saying something. As the protagonists, they are the normalised characters we are supposed to sympathise with. Conversely, the odd ways in which their friends and family treat them stand out more.

For example, after spending a great deal of time with Tiffany, Pat is genuinely quite happy. Understandable. However, his dad, Pat senior (Robert De Niro) asks why is he so “up.” To his dad, Pat’s elevated mood can only be a result of his illness, or the inaccurate dosing of his medication. This one scene eloquently illustrates that once diagnosed, every aspect of your behaviour and personality is viewed through the lens of mental illness.

Other characters are not entirely sure about how to act around Pat, and give bashful excuses for why they didn’t visit him in the psychiatric hospital. Though we may be guilty of similar actions in real life, this film highlights how awkward they really are.

Though Pat and Tiffany are the diagnosed characters, there are quiet hints of mental illness in the background. Pat senior, a bookmaker on American Football is obsessively suspicious and regimentally compulsive about the game (Probably not obsessive-compulsive disorder but somewhere in that region), while Pat’s friend Ronnie quietly admits to Pat the difficulties he is having in his life, to which Pat replies, “That’s crazy!”

Part of Pat’s reluctance to take medication is that they make him feel so blunted, so doped. I couldn’t help but smile in gratitude to the inclusion of this genuine problem for patients with bipolar disorder. When they’re up, they feel fantastic and don’t believe they’re ill. Hence, why take medication that makes them feel so (relatively) low and drugged?

While I admit the characters opinions of their medications is a nice touch, I had a harder time with their theory that society is hypocritical while they are true to reality. A sniff of Zsasz’s medicalisation of problematic individuals, a whiff of the increased insight of those with mental illness. While I have met patients with opinions like this, in this film, it came across as a conspiracy theory crossed with teenage angst. A minor point.

Goodness me, so much psychiatry! Wasn’t I reviewing a film at some point? The acting of Cooper and Lawrence make this film. They are so idiosyncratic, so different, so “crazy” but at the same time, relatable, sympathetic and human. They are people with mental illness, not monsters or aliens or something other unknowable thing. In short, they get it right. They are supported by an equally talented cast, including De Niro and Chris Tucker as Pat’s friend, Danny, from the psychiatric hospital. I’m not sure what Tucker adds to the film but he does it well, unobtrusively.

There is a wealth of playful tricks of the camera, which cleverly further and deepen the story. The music is by Danny Elfman so nothing more be said on that. There is a lot of talk on American football, which, if I’m honest, flew over my head, but, hey, I’m British, I’m not supposed to get it. The dancing, which also comes into the plot, is an example to films like Step Up et al of when a dance-off is dramatically and narratively necessary and relevant.

In short, this is a fresh and interesting romantic comedy that avoids the excesses of Hollywood schmaltz. That void is instead filled with humour and mental illness, two of my favourite things. Though it has a slightly protracted running time, I would be surprised if this wasn’t in the running for an Oscar or two next year. This is certainly a film to watch.

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