Hopefully, you’ve been lured in by the melodramatic title. I assure you, this is NOT an exaggeration. Every word is true. And now, let the motormouth run rampart.
Films featuring a hidden condition often walk thin lines between staying true to real-life and falling victim to Hollywood stereotypes. But every now and then, you will see a film that transcends your understanding of a hidden condition in a simultaneously emotive and entertaining way. Silver Linings Playbook is such a film.
For the unaware out there, Silver Linings Playbook is a 2012 drama based on the novel by Matthew Quick, and featuring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in career-defining roles. Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a man with bipolar disorder who is released from a psychiatric hospital and seeks to rebuild his life with the help of recently-widowed Tiffany Maxwell (Lawrence).
When I first heard of the film, I was apprehensive. I couldn’t help but wonder, “will Cooper’s character be portrayed as a socially-challenged math whiz, a raving lunatic frothing at the mouth, or any other disability clichés.”
But then I learned that writer-director David O’Russell’s son had bipolar and OCD, and I thought, “This guy’s coming at it from a personal angle.” If anything, the chances of him botching the portrayal dropped dramatically.
And then, I went to see the film in November 2012.
Suffice to say, I was blown away… not literally, it’s a film, not a whirlwind.
As someone who was fairly unversed in the traits of bipolar, it was quite educational for me to see Pat demonstrating all these characteristics; the hyperactivity, the mood swings, the triggers, and how Pat reacted to them. He could be outspoken one minute and manic the next. But the true greatness of the performance lies in the fact that these traits are as much about how Pat responds to them as opposed to just having them bought on by bipolar. It would have been easier to shove Pat into a stereotype, but the film avoids that.
A lot of the greatness of this portrayal comes down to Bradley Cooper. Having really only known Cooper for the Hangover films up to that point, I didn’t think of him as a dramatic actor (I’m so sorry, Bradley). Suffice to say, I’ve never been more happy to be proven wrong. Cooper plays the duality of bipolar masterfully, going from manic and distressed to instantly regretful and subdued the next, and treating those outspoken moments as though they were the norm of everyday behaviour. Because… they are. For him anyway.
But Cooper nails that yearning to connect with people, at times feeling out of place, partially oblivious to social norms while being uncomfortable in his own skin. This is a man who has been put through the mental ringer and is trying to grasp that lust for life. He knows what he has and how it effects him and his family and is striving for some semblance of stability. That in itself is both emotive and inspiring. And you feel the weight of what he’s up against. You may be moved to tears as his episodes strain his family and you may want to punch the air with joy at seeing Pat overcome a social barrier….and yes, this will make you stick out like a sore thumb in your audience, as I did. But suffice to say, I went on that journey with Pat when I saw this film and I felt enriched by the end of it. And a lot of that was made possible thanks to Cooper’s transcending performance.
Ironically, despite the part bipolar plays in the film, the script doesn’t paint bipolar as some overbearing demon that needs to be overcome. The world ‘bipolar’ itself is only mentioned twice in the film. It’s about Pat facing his own problems head on and getting over his own traumas that give the film and the characters their uniqueness. One notable example is when he’s driven to manic episodes by Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’. DISCLAIMER: Stevie Wonder doesn’t really have that effect on people. Boy bands on the other hand…
The film also takes a brief, but no less insightful view at how the public can react to mental illness. A lot of people outside Pat’s circle of family and friends react with apprehension whenever he’s nearby, such as when his former co-worker behaves as though he’s a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Now maybe this apprehension is justified to an extent considering Pat spent eight months in an institution for assaulting his ex-wife’s lover, it goes to show how a lack of constant exposure to mental health will leave people metaphorically in the dark about the in’s and out’s, compared to his social circle who at the very least, understand Pat’s condition and try to help him through it. And sometimes, when we have a hidden condition, we need someone to affirm that we’re not a basket case.
But the film is not just all about Pat. I know you probably don’t believe that considering I’ve spent most of the film gushing about Bradley Cooper’s performance, but the film also takes a look at the people in Pat’s lives, many of which come with their own eccentricities, from Robert De Niro’s role as Pat’s OCD, superstitious father – De Niro’s best role in decades – Chris Tucker as Pat’s fast-talking best friend Danny – helping you move on from The Fifth Element – and of course, Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-winning performance as Tiffany, a depressed widow who soon becomes his closest confidant. Her sarcastic persona is a perfect counterpart for Pat’s bluntless, acknowledging and even embracing her more eccentric side, as shown when she and Pat bond over medications. It makes sense in context, believe me. Or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.
Now, rest assured, despite the serious subject matter, the film is not TOO serious. You don’t have to sit through 2 hours completely stone-faced… unless you’re a Vulcan. As Tiffany tells Pat, “You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things” (a man after my own heart). Pat’s outspokenness makes for brilliant comedy, such as throwing an Ernest Hemingway book through a window (to be honest, I might have been tempted to do the same if it was a Twilight novel) and bluntly asking Tiffany about her active sex life. There’s a self-awareness of mental health in the film that means you can have a laugh without feeling guilty. Even without the mental health element, the film finds amusing moments, such as a hilarious dance scene that shows what happens if you try to emit Dirty Dancing with subpar coordination and bad footing. I’m certainly not taking any chances after seeing this film.
Now some of you may be wondering, why this film? Several films are being churned out with equally good – maybe, even accurate – portrayals. So, why Silver Linings Playbook?
The film doesn’t water down the difficulties that come with having a mental health condition and how it can bring you to your lowest ebb. But even when Pat has little to no reason to be happy about his current circumstances, he doesn’t let it hold him back. And this is probably best emphasised within the film’s first ten minutes where Pat explains the meaning of the word, Excelsior. “It means I’m going take all this negativity, and I’m going to use it as fuel and I’m going to find a silver lining.” I think we might benefit from a bit of Excelsior in our lives. You don’t even have to have a hidden condition to find some value in that word. And sometimes, it takes a film like this to tell us that… especially if you’re like me and have gotten 72% of your education from cinema.
I’ve seen a lot of films featuring hidden conditions, but never one like this. A HC film feels like a juggling act, balancing so many condition aspects without forsaking narrative. Silver Linings Playbook features a portrayal true to the condition in the mix of an incredible story. If mental health had a film syllabus, THIS would be the crown jewel. I implore ANYONE reading this post to check this film out, if only for the sake of watching good cinema.
Now, while this is very unlikely… I’m going to feel very stupid if I ever see a film better than this.