Silver Linings

First of all, my heart goes out to all the victims, the families, and others affected by the tragic shooting in CT yesterday. My heart is broken. It’s unthinkable violence.

And now, onto me (ugh, terrible transition, forgive me).

It’s been a crazy week, and not really a good one. I’m moody and overwhelmed and anxious about going home on Monday with A. I had two auditions (got one callback), but nothing I’m over-the-moon excited about. You know? I think I’m just ready for home. It has been since April.

So A and I saw Silver Linings Playbook, the new David O. Russell movie, this afternoon. Those of you that have been following my blog for a while know that I LOVE movies and I devoutly follow the awards season. It’s just one of those fun things that you can do if you don’t like sports but like the strategy game. So.

Anyway, I like Russel’s work in general– Three Kings, parts of I Heart Huckabees, and The Fighter, but this… I struggled. The ads looked stupid– like rom-com bullshit stupid– but after I got drinks with R, she convinced me that it’s actually a wonderful movie “about mental illness and family, and the genetic ties of mental illness…” so I figured maybe I was wrong. Russell is a great director, and it sounded like something I’d like. Plus, all the reviews were raves.

Well. Unfortunately. I was right on first instinct. There were moments that rang true, and there were moments I laughed, but I feel like Russell didn’t succeed in treating mental illness with weight and understanding AND making a very traditional rom-com (two crazy people find each other, make each other mad, fall in love with each other, and are perfectly crazy together). It felt scattered, and so neither side felt true.

This goes against what most of the press is saying, so I’m going to draw upon a Salon article that I think deals with this point in a clearer way than I have.

After talking about various critics’ praise/judgement of the film, L.V. Anderson wonders why they seem to be missing what, to his mind, is the major crux of the film.

“Mostly because Silver Linings Playbook is a mess. That messiness is at least partly by design. .. 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.)”

Okay. So back to my words.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a kid. I’d say that I could no longer be classified as bipolar, and childhood bipolar is different from that in adults. There WERE moments of the film that rang true in terms of mental illness (Pat’s in a good mood, but his parents are concerned that his happiness is “too happy, too up”– manic– something I’ve experienced with my own parents), but for a movie that is supposed to be catalyzed by mental illness, making the mentally ill compassionate protagonists in the story, in some way normalizing the experience of mental illness in the framework of a rom-com, Russell leaves problematic holes.

As someone who has (and will forever) suffer from mental illness, I couldn’t just let go the fact that Pat’s mood was unchanged by taking or not taking meds (nor did he have side effects, which he even referenced). I didn’t believe that Tiffany was actually struggling, and couldn’t understand why, if she indeed was, no one helped her get help. AND WHY OH WHY would anyone let the incredibly triggering situation in the final scenes of the movie possibly take place?! Pat’s therapist was in the room when the parlay was planned– and it is clearly the worst idea EVER THOUGHT UP for at least three diagnosable mentally ill characters.

Bradley Cooper does a good job. There’s some sweetness, there are some laughs. Robert DeNiro and Chris Tucker are great (I can’t talk about Jennifer Lawrence because she just takes all the parts for young women with depth).

But there’s just this part of me that felt talked down to, and felt uncomfortable with the way mental illness was ultimately handled. Are we cured by love? Does exercise provide relief from lifelong bipolar disorder? Are meds not even WORTH trying? Does mentally ill just mean “adorable mess” when it comes to women?

Things to think about. Any of you see this movie?

(Also, P.S., my favorite films of the year: Lincoln, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo. Yet to see are Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi. I’ve seen a ton more, but these are my picks for faves of the year.)

2 thoughts on “Silver Linings

  1. I haven’t heard of this movie, and your review of it both intrigues me while confirming that I’ve not really stumbled across any movie that handles mental health with the compassion, tact and honesty that it should.

    Your final questions about mental illness are valid and should be discussed: are we cured by love? No – but love can sometimes provide the motivation to help ourselves more than we care to on our own…

    Does exercise provide relief from lifelong biploar disorder? No, not on its own but exercise is supremely beneficial no matter what the circumstance for every person and does have mood modifying and uplifting properties (if we can be bothered getting ourselves moving when majorly depressed)…

    Are meds not even worth trying? Urgh. Of course they are depending on the circumstances and management techniques you want to employ. But also deal with the side effects, show how meds can exacerbate some symptoms while relieving others, physical symptoms, emotional symptoms….

    Does mentally ill just mean “adorable mess” when it comes to women? *vomit* I have see too many examples where people treat it this way…. oh, she’s just blah blah blah it’s so cute…. Now, while I believe in accepting people exactly as they are, I don’t believe in excusing behaviour or treating it with frivolity without consequences.

    So if these were the questions you came out with, I’ve no desire to see the movie! People with mental health difficulties *are* “normal” people. They just don’t necessarily process the human experience in the same way; but no-one seems to focus on the sameness of our experience they are simply providing platitudes to go with the stereotypes. The difficulty, I suppose, is to condense those issues down into 120 minutes… You can make a silly rom-com or thriller with that sort of timeframe but it’s incredibly difficult to accurately portray any sort of actual genuine life in such limited time.

    OK, now I’m rambling and ranting… I just wish that people without mental health issues were more open to understanding the similarities they have to those *with* mental health difficulties. If we focused on our similarity rather than our differences, I think there’d be more understanding, more compassion and, perhaps as a side effect …. less mental health problems? Maybe. xo.

  2. Nataly,

    These are such great answers to my (spur-of-the-moment word-vomited) questions!! It IS really hard to find a movie that accurately portrays mental illness. The closest I ever came was with the– get this– musical NEXT TO NORMAL, which deals with a schizophrenic mother. You see her struggle with finding the right med “cocktail,” see her husband struggle to support her but also understand her, and her daughter’s difficulty accepting both her mother’s disease and her treatment. I SO recommend even finding the album.

    There’s a section in a song that the daughter sings that deals with the genetics of mental illness and finding love in a more genuine way than this whole movie:

    NATALIE: Am I crazy?
    I might end up crazy.

    HENRY: I’ll be here for you.

    NATALIE: You say that right here
    But then give it a year
    Or 10 years or a life
    And I could end up your wife
    Sitting staring at walls
    Throwing shit down the stairs
    Freaking out at the store
    Running nude down the street
    Bleeding out in the bath

    HENRY: Perfect for you
    I will be perfect for you
    So you could go crazy
    Or I could go crazy, it’s true
    Sometimes life isn’t sane
    But crazy I know I can do
    Cause crazy is perfect
    And fucked up is perfect
    So I will be perfect, perfect for you.

    Haha, so a rambly response to your response. 🙂
    Thanks for reading! Maybe my next entry will look at those questions. ‘Cause they are kinda good ones!


    P.S. The “adorable mess” thing is something I’ve only recently identified as something that’s been used on me. At first, it was nice because I felt “accepted.” But again… I’m a NORMAL person. I am not merely a collection of quirks. Mental illness (the part you DON’T see, the part that’s in our heads, the parts that get triggered and spasm) are far from quirky and cute. I’d like to see these two characters get through something like THAT.

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