Silver Linings Playbook (2012) Reaction paper

By Keith Murfee-DeConcini 

DSAB 627: Disability and Narrative, Fall 2014


The narrative style of Silver Linings Playbook is first person, as the movie is told by Pat Solitano Jr., played by Bradley Cooper.  It seems that Pat went completely ballistic when he found his wife in the shower with another man, which led to his psychiatric hospitalization due to undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  After a nine month stay in a mental hospital, Pat moves back with his parents in Philadelphia, hoping to get his life back on track and especially to patch things up with his estranged wife.  While looking to do this, he meets Tiffany Maxwell, a young widow who has control problems of her own, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Through their new friendship, sparks fly immediately and Pat’s world and plan are both turned upside down.

The film deals a lot with Pat trying to cope with being bipolar and how it compares to the experience of his father, Pat Sr. who also has obsessive–compulsive disorder; the father is played by Robert De Niro. The film is directed by David O. Russell, who also wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Matthew Quick.

The film presents the characters as real people and humanizes their diagnoses with deft use of comedy. There is no sugar-coating in this movie, no shortcuts taken, and the characters are likable if a bit zany. Viewers see the characters go through highs and lows as they deal with situations of complexity in the realm of emotions. One instance of this is when Pat is in the waiting area of his new therapist’s office; his wedding song comes over the speaker and sets him off into a rage. After berating the receptionist, he knocks over a magazine rack, startling everyone in the waiting area, as well as two therapists who open their office doors. One can see the look of pure emotional aguish on Pat’s face after he calms down and begins slowly picking up the magazines.

We see Pat trying to distance himself from the actions of his father. While talking to his therapist, he says, “I don’t want any meds, Doctor. Look, I am not the explosion guy, okay? My father is the explosion guy. I’m not that guy.”  His therapist insists, of course, that he will have to take his meds anyway. Taking medications is seen by Pat as a weakness.  Later in the scene, Pat acknowledges that he has been dealing with his undiagnosed bipolar disorder on his own, with no help at all, “white knuckling it,” and we see the deep pain of that in his face. The stigma of being on medication is lightly touched upon in the movie, but it does occur in Pat’s resistance to taking it, coupled with the negative side effects of the drugs themselves.

 This is seen further at a dinner party where Pat first meets Tiffany. Tiffany asks Pat straight out what meds he is on, which begins an engrossing discussion for them as they compare notes — but one that alienates the two hosts of the dinner, Veronica (Tiffany’s sister) and her husband, Ronnie (Pat’s friend). Their animated conversation on the numerous side effects of being on meds clearly confuses the hosts, and they cannot relate to it except to stare blankly at Pat and Tiffany.

The element of harassment and mental illness comes into play after Pat and Tiffany go on a date and get into a fight outside of a movie theater. She accuses him of harassment and a bunch of kids outside verbally assault him. To be fair, when people see a man harassing a woman, the natural thing to do is to protect the woman. We see Pat struggling mightily to control his emotions.

 However, a neighborhood kid, Ricky D’Angelo (played by David O Russell’s son, Matthew Russell, who in real life has bipolar disorder and OCD) is there. Ricky is seen twice earlier in the movie, asking the family to do interviews for a school project on mental illness, so he clearly has knowledge of the family struggles. With that in mind, the above scene could be considered harassment linked to stigma surrounding mental illness, especially since Ricky says to Pat, “I’m gonna fuck you up!”

When viewers find out how Tiffany’s husband died, they are able to empathize with her through the look of pure emotional anguish on Pat’s face, since anyone hearing that horrible story would react the same way as Pat did. Throughout the latter half of the movie, dancing plays a major role in this movie and it is used as a tool to examine how Pat and Tiffany relate as they form a closer bond. Even though Tiffany is a very feisty individual, dancing is her therapy, which helps to smooth out her rough edges.

While his father is driving him to a football game, Pat is able to come to terms that he is like his dad in a good way. This comes about because through the progress of the story, where Pat is able to be less ashamed of who he is as a person and furthermore is able to understand his dad better. This self-acceptance as a turning point for Pat is evinced in the following lines:

Pat: “It’s too bad you can’t come in to the stadium, but I know you were kicked out, you know, for beating everybody up. Guess we’re not that different, huh, Dad?”

Pat Sr.: “That a bad thing?”

Pat: “No, I think it’s a good thing.”  

The title of the movie and book reflect Pat’s outlook post hospitalization. He tries to find a bit of good (the silver lining) in everything. It is a different concept than positive thinking all the time, as the characters go through their own trials throughout the movie. Therefore, the concept is more about Pat’s expectations that are balanced against the harsh realities of everyday life in the film.

 The obstacles faced by the characters, besides their own internal struggles, are the attitudes of the public. At a football game with his brother Jake, Pat faces some harsh jokes from Jake’s friends: “What’s this I hear about you just getting out from the looney bin?” and “You better watch your brother Jake, cuckoo bird is flying away from the nest.” Even though Jake harshly corrects his friends, the whole topic of mental illness, according to those who are not dealing with it, is that either it’s a joke or something extremely serious that must be dealt with in a very medical framework. The latter is displayed most prominently in the beginning of the movie which opens inside a psychiatric hospital.       

The characters in this movie are relatable because the problems and issues they deal with are real.  The use of humor throughout the story helps ease the tension surrounding mental illness. These characters are so relatable that they could live next door to you. This movie is about humanizing mental illness and you are able to understand and connect to the characters through the narrative style that pulls no punches because neither does life.

The toughest scene to watch is the early morning family “freak out,” because it is one of the most accurate scene of a mental episode of losing total control. It is so realistic that it is cringe worthy. After walking Tiffany home after dinner, Pat comes home and is obsessed with finding and watching his wedding video in hopes of staving off his growing attraction to Tiffany. After ransacking the entire house and waking up his parents in the process, Pat loses controls of his emotions in the attic and wakes up half the neighborhood with his screaming, accidently striking his mother who is trying to calm him down.

The story has its climatic moment at the dancing competition where Pat and Tiffany are able to show off their moves, and despite a very hilarious finish, prove that hard work and training do pay off in the long run. It is also in this scene where no doubt remains that these two people are truly made for each other. By the end, these two characters certainly are not “cured” but are coping much better than at the start. Together, they are zany but functional. In the numerous times I have seen this movie, I am always struck by the underlying sense of hope and reconciliation the story has. Mental illness does not have to be scary, or a larger than life problem one has to contend with alone. The movie is a strong testament to family and the notion that sometimes, all someone needs to survive and to heal is a little compassion from those around them. It is no wonder that according to a news source, this movie took in more than eleven times its budget at the box office. People like an engaging storyline, filled with relatable but complex characters. This is a movie about hope amidst the challenges surrounding mental illness and it proves that sometimes, the best medication is a dose of humor.