As my previous review of “Manic” posited, mental illness is a subject that has a somewhat complicated history in cinematic depictions, particularly in Hollywood. Most of the time, mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder and paranoia are simplified, reduced to more spectacular symptoms in order to make them easily recognizable. Usually, characters suffering from mental illness will either be villains whose disabilities make them frightening and alien (usually serial killers), quirky oddballs whose disabilities make them endearing and funny or, most loathsomely, Magical Mentally Disabled People whose disabilities can remind “normal” people of the essential things in life and help them become better people.
My point is that very few American films treat mental illness seriously and accurately. And I don’t blame them. I myself suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome along with obsessive anxieties. To properly express what it’s like to live with those things is difficult enough for a sufferer like me, so it’s perfectly understandable that non-sufferers would prefer to simplify things.
The challenge David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” gives itself is to find a balance between accessibility and complexity, to give a more honest depiction of mental illness than your average Hollywood film all while remaining true to traditional romantic dramedy codes and structure. This balance is achieved by a distinct separation of tasks: The settings, plot structure, situations and character arcs provide Hollywood camouflage to enable the acting, dialogue, camera movements and editing to convey the characters’ problems in an accurate manner. The script provides the sugarcoating, the people provide the bittersweet heart.
Upon watching the film again, I was particularly struck by how carefully David O. Russell pays attention to the way his characters interact with each other, and how skillfully his camera captures their shifting moods. Not a single movement is wasted and yet nothing feels premeditated. Whether it’s bipolar protagonist Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) having a manic episode while frantically searching for his wedding video or his date with hypersexual widow Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), which is shot mainly in long-focal close-ups of the speaking party’s face. Not an exceptionally original way to film a conversation, but one that encourages the viewer to pay extra attention to what the characters are expressing beyond their words. Too many dialogue scenes in traditional romantic comedies rely on cheap jokes and emotional shortcuts that, ultimately, only convey that something funny and/or dramatic has happened. This scene is rich not just because we are learning Tiffany’s backstory but because we are seeing two people reacting to each other in a fresh, unaffected and uncalculated way. The scene’s structure and function, while still present, take a backseat in order for the characters to take form and act organically, rather than at the service of the plot.
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper truly shine in roles that appear perfectly tailored to their innate likeability, making their outbursts more palatable but without diminishing their impact. They are neither role models nor figures of ridicule or pity, but rather genuine human beings operating within Hollywood parameters. Bradley Cooper in particular is a revelation; you wouldn’t think of casting an actor of such handsome movie-star countenance as a motor-mouthed bipolar man on parole, but Cooper and Russell subvert expectations by barely capitalizing on those looks. Indeed, Cooper’s bright blue eyes, ordinarily so sparkly as to appear unreal, do an incredible job at communicating a man’s desperate fight against both reality and his own delusions.
In the context of David O. Russell’s filmography, it is particularly interesting to see how far he has come in his depiction of the family unit. Initially messed up beyond all repair in his marvelous 1994 pitch-black comedy “Spanking The Monkey” – in which Jeremy Davies’ sexual and familial repression combined with his mother’s emotional abuse culminated in incest – it has since evolved into a more cautiously optimistic form of controlled craziness, from the conflicted-yet-loving “white trash” family from “The Fighter” to the Solitano family, where, to paraphrase “Arsenic And Old Lace”, insanity practically gallops. Jacki Weaver’s Dolores stands as the lone long-suffering voice of sanity – the polar opposite of her poisonous matriarch from “Animal Kingdom” – as she deals with an OCD-suffering, compulsive gambling husband (Robert De Niro, giving his best performance since Kenneth Branagh’s unfairly maligned “Frankenstein”), an overachieving elder son and a bipolar younger son just out of hospital. Through Russell’s comedic lens, the pain brought on by their arguments, fights and suffering is softened but not eliminated. Love and humor do not reduce or destroy that pain, they make it bearable.
Regrettably, this principle gets somewhat betrayed in the third act by an implausibly optimistic epilogue which suggests that everything will be alright for the family and that Pat Jr., Pat Sr. and Tiffany have managed to control their troubles. In real life, people with mental illness don’t get a “happily ever after” . “Getting better” is never a permanent end, it’s a constant struggle to adjust and readjust with every new situation. In spite of this, “Silver Linings Playbook” remains a thinking person’s romantic comedy: It has the same structure as one, but with a half-serious treatment of mental illnesses at its forefront and superior acting.