Silver Linings Playbook
For some reason, whenever someone makes a movie about depression or a similar mental illness, it always gets filtered through alcoholism or addiction. Young Adult and Shame quickly come to mind as examples of films where everyone seems to have leapt at the symptom instead of the disease. It’s not that a story can’t actually be about alcoholism directly — just look at Smashed — but the alcoholic-addict theme is so strong in our minds that it overrides all others.
Enter David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook, which gives us some profoundly damaged and broken characters who must find a way to make do and get on with life anyway. Backed up by a phenomenal cast, it’s fast-paced, whip-smart, darkly hilarious, and deeply touching.
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has spent the last eight months in a mental hospital after a violent breakdown triggered by finding his wife, Nikki, in the shower with a fellow teacher. He’s managed to avoid jail time with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder which just about anyone could tell by watching him for a little while, but people don’t really talk about that sort of thing in his suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. The doctors at the hospital don’t think he’s really ready to leave, but his mother (Jacki Weaver) convinces the courts it’s safe for him to move back with her and his father (Robert DeNiro) — who shows more than a few symptoms of his own — so long as he sees a therapist (Anupam Kher).
Pat is convinced that if he can pull himself together he can get back with Nikki. He goes on about their deep and abiding love, and blows off her restraining order as a temporary thing she will get past when she sees how he’s improving himself by losing weight and reading through her freshman English syllabus. His friend (John Ortiz) and his friend’s wife (Julia Stiles) are still in contact with Nikki, and they try to moderate his expectations. It’s through them that he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow who’s not exactly a paragon of mental health herself. Her problems have really emerged since her husband’s death, but the roots seem to extend further.
Pat, of course, wants to get back with his wife, and so he avoids getting involved with Tiffany, but Tiffany is a persistent sort. What’s more, she could provide a back-channel for communicating with Nikki, and so he finds himself drawn back to her. On her part, Tiffany could probably use a friend who’s not trying to sleep with her, and so the two form an unusual bond.
The picture of mental illness we find here is not particularly realistic; it’s stylized in all sorts of ways that make for a good story, although none are really unfair to the real population with bipolar disorder. And, to be honest, I can see a number of bipolar friends in Pat’s erratic behavior. So it’s not particularly unrealistic either. In fact, it actually provides a place where Chris Tucker’s hyperkinetic delivery can fit in as a serious character instead of as a bit of schtick.
So, with the “realism” caveat in mind, Cooper and Lawrence are both excellent. They each earn the hype that’s building around their performances, which should only be a surprise if you’re one of those awards junkies who never even considers genres like science fiction, comedy, action, and horror to be sources of great acting, and if you never bothered to see The Beaver or The Words. These are seriously talented actors, and this may finally be the moment they earn the recognition they deserve.
A deeply insightful examination of life with bipolar disorder or other mental illness this is not, but it manages to be respectful to the subject as it tells its tale: a charming, funny, and sometimes poignant romantic comedy with a happy Hollywood ending any audience can get behind.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.