Movie Column: A Rom-Com’s Portrayal of Mental Illness

I knew from the scene in Silver Linings Playbook’s trailer—featuring Pat (Bradley Cooper) waking his parents up at four in the morning in a shouting fit because the ending of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms was too sad—that this movie would have a predictable feel-good ending. Seconds later in the trailer, with the introduction of Jennifer Lawrence as the female lead, the movie was set firmly and boringly into the typical rom-com, manic-pixie-dream-girl storyline. As much as I love Lawrence (who was an Oscar Nominee when she was my age), I did not think I could bear seeing her cast as a female-bodied plot device enabling Cooper’s post-melancholic reintroduction to the wonderful adventure of life. 

Yet, still in the trailer, the two leads discuss the array of drugs they each take and snap at each other over who is “crazier.” It becomes apparent that the movie is also trying to frame itself with brutal, post-modern honesty about how messed up people really are. Would the premise of mental health be dealt with as more than just a comedic device? Would it be too much to hope that Lawrence would have an actual character? I took a gamble and went to see it.

I can gladly say I wasn’t disappointed. At least not at first. Silver Linings Playbook isn’t afraid to dare us to hate its destructive characters. Pat, after spending eight months in a psychiatric clinic for beating up his wife Nikki’s lover, is back in town, nauseatingly nursing the delusion that he will get Nikki back, even though she has put out a restraining order on him. He is rude to his parents and, if we’re entirely honest, to pretty much everyone.

Lawrence’s previously sexually promiscuous Tiffany is pushy and manipulative, resorting to emotional blackmail, lies and a little bit of stalking to get Pat to pay attention to her. The two are interesting together, because they can’t quite figure out how to deal with each other. Most often, their exchanges end with spectacular amounts of misdemeanor and hurt on both sides but perhaps—and this is the trick—with a little healing as well.

Pat and Tiffany are not the only off-balance characters. Several scenes of costumed children trick-or-treating on Halloween or wreaths being put up on houses at Christmas, and the running gag of a neighbor showing up every so often with a camera to ask if he can film a manic-depressive episode for his school project, all hint that Silver Linings is decidedly a neighborhood story.

In this postmodern neighborhood, possibly everybody is as messed up as our diagnosed protagonists. Pat’s obsessive-compulsive, superstitious gambler father, Pat Sr. (played by a very entertaining Robert De Niro), believes that whether the Eagles will win a football game depends on the actions of his own family members. Pat’s anxious mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) makes an art of vehemently pretending that everything is OK. Pat’s best friend Ronnie is suffocating under his unbearable family life and listens to death metal on full volume in the garage. Tiffany’s relationship with her family is more than a little antagonistic. Also part of the postmodern neighborhood unit are Pat’s psychiatrist Dr. Patel and oft-jail-breaking clinic friend Danny (Chris Tucker).

Sparks of physical or verbal violence fly in the fascinatingly unbalanced and uncensored interaction of this neighborhood. Director David O. Russell, whose shouting scenes are a recurring element in previous movies like The Fighter and I Heart Huckabees, is at his best in situations like this. His camera, with control and rhythm, plumbs meaning from the chaos. All these people, we see, are stuck together—a tribe, for better or for worse. Whether they forsake or save each other, somehow they’ll all have to get through together. That is, they’ll all have to find their silver lining.

The best scene is when the whole tribe is brought together, all those energies packed into one living room, and the two most dominant characters, Tiffany and Pat Sr., face off. However, just as my heart started beating faster under the cinematic brilliance of it all, I felt the prickling of betrayal.

The problem is this: when Tiffany and Pat Sr. make a bet, the movie veers straight into the Hollywood formula promised in the trailer. Glossing over the irreparable damage that the characters, especially Tiffany and the Pats, continue to do to themselves and to others, the movie delivers a happy, crowd-pleasing ending that we can see coming a mile away.

Yes, a rom-com is hardly ever done so well, and it’s really hard to deny how much more earned this one feels than the typical variant. Still, I felt cheated. And it’s not that I think a movie with a happy ending can’t be good. Instead, hadn’t the movie just shown us that idealized romantic love isn’t the only story there for telling? That idealized romantic love probably isn’t so ideal?

I wanted to be told about the imperfect happiness of a sought-after silver lining, not some sort of totality of silver linings. 

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