Mental illness is the subject of the Academy Award-nominated comedy “Silver Linings Playbook,” and it handles the difficult subject matter remarkably well considering its nature. The last Oscar-nominated film that delved deeply into the fractured mind was “Black Swan,” an excellent movie that mind very dark places and seemed to divide audiences. “Silver Linings” is a bit more realistic, treating it’s characters as accessible, real people rather than archetypes, but it suffers from the necessity of comedy writing—namely that a comedy requires a happy ending.
That said, the film has several powerful scenes that focus on the realities of mental illness and those who suffer from it. It shows caring families who are at a loss to manage their struggling family members because they ultimately can’t understand their behavior. The characters don’t even understand their own actions from time to time. If the filmmaker had been able to resist moving the plot forward through contrivances, focusing instead on the internal characteristics of its characters, it would have been a home run. As it is, it still warrants the nomination.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) has recently been released from an eight-month, court ordered psychiatric rehabilitation. During this period, he is diagnosed as bi-polar. Without the knowledge of his father, Pat is discharged into the care of his mother. He is single minded in his determination to win back his wife’s affections, despite the fact that she has a restraining order against him because he nearly killed her lover after discovering them in the shower together. He repeats his mantra of “excelsior” over and over to himself, looking for silver linings in all things, in an effort to maintain the manic cycle of this disease and initially refuses to manage himself through medication, as it makes him feel clouded and bloated.
Pat eventually crosses paths with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), sister-in-law of a friend who lost her husband in a traffic accident, which caused her to spin into a spiral of depression and sex before moving into a garage behind her parent’s house. The rules of screenwriting dictate that beautiful and damaged people must fall in love, which happens in this case through manipulation and dance.
The film does a remarkable job early on of revealing the difficulties of mental illness, specifically bi-polar and depression. Pat’s family reacts realistically to his erratic moods and behavior, their faces constantly fraught with worry and exasperation. Tiffany’s family watches from windows, angrily dismissing suitors who appear to take advantage of her fragility. There is a particularly fascinating scene in which Pat and Tiffany discuss medications and side effects while the family looks on in dismay.
More scenes like that would have only worked to the film’s favor. “Silver Linings” also explores a subplot involving Pat’s father (Robert Di Niro) as an obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan with anger issues of his own. It reveals the guilt and anguish felt by parents who can only see the troubles of their children as signs of their own failure. Unfortunately, the film drops most of these themes in the last 30 minutes or so to cleanly wrap the plot up in a happily-ever-after bow.
Despite its forced ending, the film makes strides toward addressing a real health problem with candor and charm. Bi-polar disorder is becoming more common place, not because of increased incidences but because it’s more easily recognized. “Silver Linings Playbook” does a good job of challenging stigmas associated with mental illness in general. Here we see people managing their illness in a holistic nature, with exercise and family support in addition to therapy and medication. The next challenge will be to make a character with mental health issues appealing without looking like Bradley Cooper. At the very least, mental illness now shares equal footing with obesity and socially awkward men and women. I call that progress.