If you’ve so much as glanced at the headlines for reviews of Silver Linings Playbook, you’ve probably discerned that the David O. Russell movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (and widely expected to be a best picture nominee) is “about mental illness.” The movie begins when Pat (Cooper) moves in with his parents after eight months in a psychiatric institution, where he was diagnosed as bipolar. He eventually finds peace in the arms of Tiffany (Lawrence), who has, we learn, also been prescribed various medications for a mental illness that is never named.
Indeed, the movie has prompted some discussion about its treatment of the subject. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody sees an anti-psychiatry subtext in the film, arguing that it “challenges the medical ‘establishment’ and the efficacy of medical science in bringing about results” and “advocates a faith-based view of mental illness.” Instead of supporting the medication and therapies that have been shown to be clinically effective in treating real-life mental illness, the film, according to Brody, “presents a personal, faith-and-family-centered approach to holding mental illness in abeyance.”
This reading of the movie hinges at least partly on a mistake about the plot, however, as The Awl’s Choire Sicha pointed out earlier this week. Brody, when writing his post, was under the impression that Pat ceased taking the medications he was prescribed—early on, we see Pat spitting out his meds and riding an optimistic, manic high. But after a couple of intense, violent clashes with his parents—one of which garners police attention—Pat begins taking his medication. Now properly medicated, Pat begins his relationship with Tiffany, which culminates—I don’t think it is a spoiler to say—in a partners’ dance competition. Per Sicha’s reading, the film is a validation of the medical establishment—a testament to the imperfect but invaluable power of mood stabilizers to treat bipolar disorder.
Meanwhile, over at the Guardian, Henry Barnes accuses Russell of punting on the mental illness question. “Having kicked off an intriguing story about mental illness and its toll on the family,” Barnes writes, “Russell puts the central issue out of play. Pat, after nearly a year of obsessions and hallucinations, simply resolves the problem.”
Why is it that critics whose job it is to be attentive to the details and underlying messages in movies disagree so sharply on the basic plot—let alone the deeper message—of this movie?
Mostly because Silver Linings Playbook is a mess. That messiness is at least partly by design. The shaky, uncomfortably intimate camerawork; the abrupt plot changes; the constantly shifting tone—all these are no doubt deliberate choices by Russell that contribute to the film’s exuberant feeling. But in addition to that choppy style there is a choppiness in the storytelling when it comes to depicting, and defining the contours of, mental illness. Russell doesn’t seem particularly interested in the question of what distinguishes a person’s mental illness from his or her personality, or the question of whether medication is as effective a treatment for bipolar disorder as a pretty girl and a dance competition. Russell doesn’t highlight whether or not Pat is medicated at any given time in the film’s narrative. Though we hear Pat complain of lithium’s side effects—sluggishness, weight gain—early in the film, we don’t see him actually experience any of these side effects once he starts taking his meds. As David Denby writes in his critical New Yorker review of Silver Linings Playbook, “What’s supposed to be clinically wrong with [Pat] is inseparable from what is merely infantile in him as a character.”
And Pat’s storyline isn’t the only one that makes Russell’s handling of mental illness baffling. Pat’s father, played by Robert DeNiro, seems to have a pretty serious undiagnosed disorder—manifesting itself in sports superstitions and a gambling addiction—but it’s his gambling that gets the plot rolling in the direction of Pat and Tiffany’s happy ending. One of Pat’s friends, played by John Ortiz, has a frightening latent violent streak that echoes Cooper’s own episodes. And Tiffany can only win Pat by lying to him repeatedly about the goal of their dance sessions—but is nonetheless presented as a perfect romantic partner for him at the end of the film, implicitly because of her own, unnamed illness. (Silver Linings Playbook falls into the annoying trope of implying that mentally ill people can only truly be understood by other mentally ill people, the details of their respective illnesses be damned.)
Silver Linings Playbook is a mishmash of neurotic behaviors, some associated with a diagnosis, most not. As Paste’s Michael Burgin writes, “Russell suggests that the only real difference between [Pat and Tiffany] and their friends and family lie in the amount of insulation in place.” As messages about mental illness go, this is a sloppy one. But that may just be a side effect of Russell’s preference for zaniness over coherence.