Cheap use of mental health as legs for plot. “@lfitzmaurice: To be perfectly clear: did not like Silver Linings Playbook very much at all”
— Michael Angelakos (@mangelakos) February 24, 2013
Last year, a band called Passion Pit released a fantastic album called Gossamer. Go listen to it; as far as pop music goes, there wasn’t a better record in 2012. The artistic brains behind Passion Pit, Michael Angelakos, was diagnosed at 18 with bipolar disorder. He’s been very outspoken about it, and it’s all over the lyrics of his songs. The music may sound peppy and happy, but the lyrics are often agitated and tortured. It’s a brilliant clash of style and substance, so when Angelakos spoke out against Silver Linings Playbook in the above tweet, I listened. Other musicians soon tweeted their agreement. As a result, I was worried about Silver Linings. I have several family members with mental health diagnoses; I love them, and I hate the idea of someone laughing at their problems. So I was pleasantly surprised when Silver Linings Playbook turned out to be one of my favorite movies from last year.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder after brutally assaulting his wife’s lover. The movie begins with Pat leaving the psychiatric hospital and beginning to work to win back his wife. He moves back in with his parents (played by the estimable Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and reconnects with some friends, Ronnie and Veronica (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles), who are still friendly with his wife. These characters alone would have been sufficient for a quality movie; his parents are volatile enough to provide Pat with enough conflict for a television series. But the fireworks really start when Pat meets Veronica’s sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany’s husband recently died; she turned to sex for solace, and had to be treated for sex addiction. She’s interested in Pat from the start, but he’s fixated on getting back together with his wife. Tiffany agrees to help Pat with his wife if he enters a dance competition with her.
When I first saw the trailer for Playbook, I thought for sure it was going to be a terrible movie. You’ve got the mental health aspect, the romance framework, a random dance contest, the Philadelphia Eagles are involved somehow, and then we’re going to try and make all of this funny haha. Didn’t really see the potential there. But that’s part of what makes Playbook such a fantastic experience. There are all these different elements involved, and you spend the whole movie wondering how they’re pulling it off without the thing collapsing in on itself. And it’s not that they just barely pulled it off. Somehow, director David O. Russell made the best, most enjoyable romantic comedy in years out of this material.
It helps that Russell has great actors involved. Getting Jacki Weaver and De Niro was crucial; Weaver is a doting mother, and De Niro’s character is nearly as obsessive about the Eagles as his son is about his marriage. You get the sense that Pat isn’t the only “crazy” one in the family. Chris Tucker also makes several memorably funny appearances as Pat’s friend from the mental hospital, as does Ortiz in the best friend role. They’ve all got quirks, and the movie flirts dangerously with the theme that we’re all a little bit crazy, which truly would have been an insult to those who struggle with mental health.
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are the reason Playbook doesn’t totally fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Cooper was headed toward a career of handsome, five-o’clock-shadowed leading men, perhaps dwindling into a role along the lines of Matthew McConaughey’s in Magic Mike, except without the talent. With Playbook, Cooper has proven he can do more than look good and recite quips with a devil-may-care smirk. The man can act; his Pat is a mess of obsession with a severe lack of inhibition.
Lawrence, on the other hand, had already hit her stride. Lawrence was already an all-star, but, as Tiffany, she became a Hall of Famer. Her Tiffany is the fulcrum of the movie, the axis on which every other character must spin to move forward with their life. She’s a sex addict, but she’s the smartest person in this movie. She sees Pat for who he is, sizes him up, and chooses to love him anyway. Tiffany’s desire for Pat is noble in a way- she wants him to want her because she thinks it’s the best thing for him.
The key is that Cooper and Lawrence give us real people who happen to have mental disorders. This is actually the best thing that Russell and his cast and crew could have done with the movie. I understand any qualms people might have about the way they handle mental health, but Playbook is respectful. There are several laughs that could be seen as at the expense of Cooper’s bipolar disorder, but I thought those moments skewed more affectionate than derisive. As I said earlier, the worst thing they could have done was make this an everyone’s crazy!, patronizing kind of movie. Instead, what we get is a movie that makes passionate, flawed, romantic love seem universal- in other words, a great romantic comedy.