Silver Linings Playbook articulates a profound message about the challenges of mental illness, the importance of family support for individuals with mental health issues, and how two people can connect on the basis of a shared mental health condition and improve each other’s lives through their relationship.
By Nils Skudra
During this quarantine period I have found time to watch a lot of movies at home, and this past weekend I watched David O. Russell’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. I felt that this film would be a great topic for a review since it relates to issues of mental health, some of which members of the autism community can relate to.
The film revolves around Pat Solatano (portrayed by Bradley Cooper), a Philadelphia man who struggles with symptoms of bipolar disorder. Having spent eight months in a Baltimore mental hospital after assaulting his wife Nikki’s lover, Pat is released and taken back home by his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) who expect him to comply with the court-issued restraining order that bars him from contacting Nikki. However, Pat intends to rebuild his life and reunite with her since he has developed a positive life philosophy during his time in the mental hospital. According to this philosophy, he should see the good in everything he experiences, and there is a “silver lining” waiting in store for him if he works really hard to improve his situation. Consequently, he fails to heed his parents’ admonishment against trying to reconnect with Nikki.
Pat’s efforts at self-improvement are significantly affected, however, by his bipolar symptoms, which take the form of aggravated and paranoid behaviors that often provide comic relief throughout the film. For example, after reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Pat exclaims “What the f***!” and tosses the book out the glass window, breaking it and waking his parents in the middle of the night. He then unleashes a tirade about why the book is so depressing and how he can’t understand why Nikki would choose such a book for her class. In a subsequent scene at the psychiatrist’s office, Pat goes into a fit of paranoia upon hearing a Stevie Wonder song playing in the waiting room, frantically tossing magazines about the floor in an effort to find the music CD.
When Pat meets with his therapist Dr. Patel, it is revealed that the song in question was Pat’s wedding song, which he found playing at home the day that he discovered Nikki’s infidelity, and therefore it is a trigger for his behavior – he explains that he can hear it in his head even when it is not playing, and this can prompt his mood swings, which he must take medication for.
Things take a turn for Pat when he meets Tiffany Maxwell (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence), his friend Ronnie’s sister-in-law, during a dinner party. Tiffany also struggles with mental health challenges – although these include depression, her diagnosis is not identified. Pat and Tiffany’s dinner conversation focuses heavily on the different medications they take for their respective symptoms, which makes Ronnie and his wife Veronica very uncomfortable since this does not fit their idea of a normal dinner talk. When Veronica tries to change the subject by bringing up Tiffany’s dance practice, some of Tiffany’s behaviors come to the forefront, including a swift transition to a belligerent attitude and a tendency to speak very directly, as she abruptly tells her sister, “Stop talking about me in the third person!” When Tiffany asks Pat if he’s taking her home, he replies that she has poor social skills, to which she retorts, “I have a problem? You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things. You scare people.”
This exchange between Pat and Tiffany is something that many people on the autism spectrum can relate to. While the two protagonists are individuals with mental illness, the tendency to speak their minds directly is a common trait among individuals with autism, and for people in both groups, this can be a social challenge since it is often manifested in making inappropriate statements. For most people who are neurotypical or sane, psychiatric medication is not a suitable topic for casual dinner conversation, nor are personal issues, for that matter. Since individuals like Pat and Tiffany or those on the autism spectrum view the world through a different lens, they tend not to have the same inhibitions against speaking directly what is on their minds. This is further attested to by Tiffany while walking home with Pat, as she notes the feeling of attraction between them and tells him, “You felt it, I felt it, don’t lie. We’re not liars like they are.”
Following his first meeting with Tiffany, Pat undergoes another bipolar mood swing due to the neglect of his medication. He frantically searches for his wedding video, screaming in agitation and waking the whole neighborhood. When his parents try to calm him down, he knocks his mother down and exchanges blows with his father until Officer Keogh, the policeman assigned to Pat’s case, arrives at their house after receiving complaints from the neighbors. While this scene is undoubtedly one of the most hilarious moments in the film, it also reveals much about the ways in which bipolar disorder can manifest itself. In addition, although the violence between Pat and his father took place in the heat of the moment, it nonetheless demonstrates the importance of having a supportive family which shows compassion and empathy in helping bipolar individuals to cope with their symptoms.
Following this episode, Pat agrees to take his medications and engages in a regular running routine in order to improve his self-discipline. On several occasions, Tiffany abruptly joins him while running and engages him in conversation about his mental health, bringing it up in a highly uncomfortable manner, saying “Calm down, crazy!” when he responds in an agitated manner. Her lack of social etiquette is further displayed when Pat asks her about going out for dinner at a local diner, and she curtly answers, “Pick me up at 7:30,” instead of expressing delight over the prospect of a date.
During their subsequent meal together, it is revealed that she engaged in promiscuous behavior due to depression following the death of her husband, resulting in the loss of her job. When Pat makes a judgmental statement about her, she goes into a mood swing of her own, telling Pat to forget her offer of helping him contact Nikki “because I’m so much CRAZIER than you!” and sweeping everything onto the floor before storming out.
When Pat rushes after Tiffany, she delivers a harsh rebuke: “You might not have experienced the shit that I did, but you loved hearing about it, didn’t you? You’re afraid to be alive, you’re afraid to live. You’re a conformist. You’re a hypocrite. You’re a liar. I opened up to you and you judged me!” This commentary resonates significantly since there are some individuals with autism who are judgmental toward other people who share their diagnosis on account of being differently functioning or not having overcome the associated challenges of autism to the same degree.
Since everyone with autism faces certain challenges that vary based on their level of the spectrum, the accusation of being a conformist is something that many would throw at autistic individuals who display a condescending attitude toward other autistic people who may not be as socially integrated. In the case of the film, this rebuke helps bring about a change in Pat’s attitude toward Tiffany and his own disorder, particularly after she calms Pat down when he starts hearing the wedding song in his head, telling him, “You going to go your whole life scared of that song? It’s a song. Don’t make it a monster.”
Following this scene, Pat gradually develops a closer relationship with Tiffany, agreeing to practice with her for an upcoming dance competition. He finds this new routine highly beneficial since it instills a new sense of purpose and discipline, but he still retains his long-term goal of reuniting with Nikki, which Tiffany promises to help him with in exchange for the dance practice. When he loses faith, however, she and his parents concoct a white lie – that Nikki will be attending the competition – in order to convince him to go. When this white lie unexpectedly becomes true, Tiffany and Pat are forced to confront their feelings for each other and reach a decision that will be determined in the aftermath of the competition.
Both Cooper and Lawrence deliver superb performances, conveying often comical but very serious and convincing portrayals of individuals with bipolar disorder. Furthermore, Silver Linings Playbook articulates a profound message about the challenges of mental illness, the importance of family support for individuals with mental health issues, and how two people can connect on the basis of a shared mental health condition and improve each other’s lives through their relationship. People with mental health issues have long been stigmatized by society, and this film makes a compelling case not only for their social acceptance but also for giving them support and encouragement so that they may lead productive lives. This message will hopefully resonate among members of the disability community as well.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.