SILVER Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy masquerading as a drama.
At least that’s what I hope it was doing because it is the only way to excuse the representation of mental illness in this film.
Director David O. Russell has talked openly about wanting to bring his own experience with mental illness to the film, his son is bipolar.
And credit to him for breathing new life into romantic comedies by trying to add some grit and realism to the film.
However, I couldn’t help but feel that mental illness was still used as a novelty in Silver Linings Playbook in ways that just doesn’t sit right with me.
Bradley Cooper – far from the pretty boy days of The Hangover and Wedding Crashers – is incredible and almost unrecogniseable as Pat, a young man fresh out of a mental institution who returns home to his family, trying to put the broken pieces of his life back together and in doing so re-win the favour of his estranged wife.
Pat is utterly manic and every room he is in feels claustrophobic. He paces and rants almost like he’s chanting, trying to make sense of everything around him without the help of a mental filter. The audience is given fly on the wall status to what it’s actually like living with a bipolar person and how even the smallest conversations the daily conversations are just powder kegs waiting to explode.
He is just phenomenal.
But this is where the character development stops. Enter Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, a girl-next-door type who is in the midst of a nervous breakdown of her own following the death of her husband. On the page, Tiffany’s character is just utterly one dimensional. Aside from the fact she too has no social filter and slept with eleven dudes, there is no explicit explanation for her Tiffany’s mental illness. We are led to believe that her nervous breakdown was triggered by the death of her husband. But we don’t know much else about her. It is Lawrence, not Russell that saves the role from becoming one dimensional. She makes up for what the script lacks - depth. There is a simmering fury bubbling away inside of Tiffany which comes out in fiery bursts when she talks to Pat. You cannot take your eyes off her. She look ready to explode.
Despite a frenetic performance from Lawrence, the film fetishises her promiscuity. During her “date” with Pat, Tiffany relishes recounting her lesbian experiences with her co workers to Pat while be eats raisin cereal. He is clearly more aroused than concerned for her. But we are led to believe that it’s ok because he is clearly lacking a filter too.
It’s a little sexist and degrading to treat Tiffany’s sexuality as a symptom of her mental illness, at least without providing us with more information about her allegedly reckless behaviour. I doubt sleeping with eleven girls would have been classified the same way had Pat “afflicted” with the same “problem”.
Russell has done a good job trying to present a realistic portrayal of what it must be like for these two, broken people, trying to put the pieces of their lives back together while struggling to stay sane. But there’s real mental illness and then there’s film friendly mental illness. Silver Linings Playbook is braver than other films of its ilk, such as Garden State or Punch Drunk Love, but it nonetheless makes some fairly agreeable choices and it straddles the line between drama and comedy.
I imagine with a bit of re-editing and restaging of some scenes, Russell could have repositioned it as a proper drama. It’s an enjoyable film, but it feels safe.
It’s a crowd pleaser. There’ s no risk in it. We know from pretty early on that Pat and Tiffany are going to get together. Russell even foreshadows it in one of the earliest scenes where Pat refuses to apologise for throwing Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms is thrown through a closed window.
“The world’s hard enough as it is, guys,” Pat says in one of the film’s earliest scenes. “Can’t someone say, hey let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”
Despite this, Russell does a great job of prolonging suspense as you’re drawn into Pat and Tiffany’s respective world’s.
And after all that he’s been through with his son, maybe Russell needed to create his own happy ending, even if only on film.
Though Russell’s representation of mental illness may have been problematic, Silver Linings Playbook is a thoroughly enjoyable and heart warming film about love, family and insanity. It features some superb performances. The soundtrack is also superb.
- Robert De Niro looked more energised than he has in years as Pat’s father, a neurotic gambler whose OCD is tied to superbowl team The Eagles. Though it’s a little frustrating that his own mental and emotional struggles go unaddressed as almost everyone in the family – barring Pat – enables what is very clearly a serious gambling problem.
- For all her acting prowess, “Australia’s own” Jackie Weaver was almost forgettable as the family matriarch who is determined to keep the family together against all odds. She isn’t given much to do beyond look worried and it would have been nice if Russell had fleshed out her character a little more.