Before agreeing to shoot Silver Linings Playbook, Robert De Niro asked to meet director David O. Russell’s son. The script had impressed him, but he needed to be face to face with the person that would directly affect Russell’s direction. The movie is about mental health, and Russell’s son has bipolar disorder.
After meeting with him, De Niro told his agent to make it happen.
Surprisingly, Silver Linings Playbook has impressed other people too – it snatched up eight Oscar nominations without any grandiose special effects (Why, hello, Life of Pi) and overwhelming patriotic appeal that somehow softens American hearts. (I’m looking at you, Lincoln). The adapted story from the original novel by Matthew Quick has a simple and straightforward plot, where the ending is entirely predictable.
What makes it a really good movie is how goddamn human it is. Pat (Bradley Cooper) has been newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and just came out of an 8 months stint in a mental institution after almost killing his wife’s middle aged lover. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is a depressed widow who used sex as a way to cope with her grief. They are both lost not only in the real world (both of them live with their parents and have no job as a consequence of their mental illnesses) but also in their minds.
Mental illness is not something that is talked about routinely. A bitter example of this is the dinner scene where Pat and Tiffany meet for the first time and bond over which medications they have been taking and how it feels to be on them. The rest of the people on the table fall silent, awkwardly and uncomfortably trying to change the subject. If mental illness was considered as normal and acceptable as physical illnesses, the meds would be easier to talk about.
But Tiffany, who has been dealing with her depression for a little bit longer than Pat has been struggling with his bipolar disorder, has absolutely no shame in her disease and the things she did because of it. Sleeping with everyone in her office resulted in her being fired, but still she likes every bit of herself, even the bad bits. It comes down to the fact that she became a tough woman, she got stronger and found a passion in dancing because of her disease. And despite her chronic bad attitude towards everyone, she loves herself . Can Pat say the same of himself? Can anyone who ever had a mental illness say that?
The illusion that lies within us all is the idea that we have control over all of our feelings and actions. If one feels sad, they should be able to just snap out of it, get over it. Our brains can be controlled and shaped by us, our thoughts can be sheltered from the obsessive, if only we are strong enough to do it. If only we try hard enough.
That’s not real. Tiffany is constantly judged for her nymphomaniac behaviour, but the truth is she was trying to feel okay and less lonely. She had no real control over her emotions and actions. And neither did Pat when he accidentally elbowed his mother in the face in an explosion where he was imagining his wedding song playing over and over again inside his head.
Judgement even happens between Tiffany and Pat. Who is craziest? Who did more awful things? Who ruined their own life the most?
It doesn’t matter because at that moment their minds and actions were uncontrollable. And they can hate themselves for it, like Pat does, or simply admit to their mistake and learn from them, like Tiffany.
The medication they are both on is a bonding point because they say it makes them feel out of focus, foggy, weird. I have heard this being said in many instances where the mentally ill person is in some kind of police interrogation. Though this sounds like a ridiculous excuse to not treat yourself when you are sick, it must not be forgotten that the very part of us that makes decisions is what is being afflicted by the disease. Medication for mental illness can indeed make one feel odd, different – and this can be scary for someone who is already out of control. Not taking the meds is something in the outside world they can control. Though eventually Pat gives in (at the end of the day, medication is the answer for him) it’s a difficult step for him – and I imagine most people who struggle with their minds feel the same.
De Niro’s part as Pat’s father is revealing for those who have people close to them afflicted by mental illness. He tries his best to bond with Pat, to give him some of his old life’s routine, but Pat is still in his head trying to find a silver lining in the wrong places. When eventually his father gets through to him, it’s evident that Pat was completely aloof to all his efforts but not on purpose, he simply could not process all that was being done for him. And once Tiffany was able to reach him as one of the only people who seem to understand what he is going through, it was easier for him to get out of his head and finally enter the real world.
Silver Linings Playbook is an honest and sometimes even funny discourse about mental illness, and how overcoming it is a difficult but beautiful journey. Not only that, it is a story about overcoming other people’s flaws as well as your own, reserving judgement when it comes to other people’s problems and moving on from heartbreak.
Photo found at The Louisville Cardinal, courtesy of The Weinstein Company.