illustration by Brianna AshbyI think people miss the point when they see love as a thing that is supposed to fix you. It doesn’t; it can’t. Love will never fill all the holes inside your heart, will never right all the wrongs, won’t undo the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Even when you find love, there will still be loneliness. There always, always is.
But love can do some things. And a film like Silver Linings Playbook shows a bit of what it can offer to us, in all our various states of brokenness. Not a fix, not a cure—but a salve of sorts, a reprieve. Love (the right kind of it, anyway) can pull us out of our own silly little heads for a while, can open up and expand our tiny worlds, can make us feel a part of something. Love is connection and support: a shelter in the storm, if not the promise that a storm will never come.
And we need that shelter, that buffer. Because it’s no secret that life, real actual life, is almost impossibly hard. Everything that truly matters—family, friendship, health, meaning—takes a tremendous amount of work and a whole lot of stumbling. We expect it to be this way after a while. Nothing worth having ever comes easy, after all. But we often don’t anticipate the intangibles that arise: a brain that doesn’t work in quite the ways you want it to; the loss of someone you love; the necessity of stepping outside of your comfort zone, of having to confront your past and all the messes you’ve made, of going home again and struggling to change, clawing your way toward some kind of redemption. The battle to be our best selves, at times, seems endless.
So when a film comes along and tries to grapple, honestly, with all of these things—with the mess of how things are for so very many of us—it’s something to admire. And when that same film also manages to find humor, not in laughing at the mess of its characters’ lives, but rather in embracing their struggles and fragility and humanity, it’s something to hold on to. And when that very same film somehow manages to accomplish all of this while also redefining what a “romantic comedy” can actually be in these fractured times—playing almost entirely within the rules and confines of a worn-out genre, but giving new life to its old, familiar rhythms—well, that’s when you stand up and cheer.
An intentionally unstable film about unstable people, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a deeply compassionate, painful, hilarious, and redemptive work of art. At its best, it reminds us that nothing ever happens in the ways in which we think (or hope); that healing takes time; that love and connection – familial, romantic, whatever – is both the cause of and solution to so many of life’s problems. It’s never pedantic, though; it doesn’t preach. Rather, it does what most good films find a way to do, holding up a mirror for us to gaze into (and project upon): to show rather than to tell. And in its honest and all-encompassing efforts to do so, Russell’s film lets us in on a handful of lives that end up feeling a whole lot more familiar than most of us are probably willing to admit. Because who hasn’t been these people, to some extent? Who hasn’t had their heart broken, their spirit crushed, or felt the world had turned against them? Who hasn’t, at one point or another, struggled to make important changes in their lives, fallen into self-destructive patterns, or fought to transcend the perceived shackles of family?
Part of Russell’s genius here lies in the ways in which he structures the film to resemble the mental illness that lies at the heart of its narrative. Bi-polar disorder, more aptly referred to as manic depression in its earlier (and much less frequently diagnosed) days, is a condition characterized by alternating bouts of mania—experienced as hyper-exhilarating, even intoxicating by some—and deep, bone-crushing depression. And Silver Linings Playbook is no stranger to either end of the spectrum; it’s a film filled to the brim with high highs and low lows, tonal swings that lend an often chaotic quality to the whole affair, a sense that the film is often teetering on the brink of coming apart at the seams. It’s a chaos that can seem unintentional unless you’re paying close enough attention to realize that Russell is actually constructing the whole thing—with a loose brilliance that perhaps no other director could pull off—to mirror his primary characters’ internal states. The film feels claustrophobic and unstable at times, but that’s exactly the point; Pat and Tiffany experience the world this way. It also, in its most sublime moments, feels almost magical. Because, again, life encompasses both extremes.
When the film begins, Pat has just been released from a mental hospital. He has spent the past eight months there, following a psychiatric breakdown triggered by coming home from work one day to find his wife in the shower with the history teacher. Their wedding song—“My Cherie Amour”—is playing in the background. Pat beats the history teacher to a bloody pulp.
After he is diagnosed, locked up, and medicated, Pat sets about bettering himself in a very systematic, regulated way, striving endlessly to make himself a better person in the hopes of getting back together with his wife, Nikki, who has a restraining order out against him. He’s not allowed to contact her, but he refuses to let this deter him. He’s delusional in this way (as well as others), but he is also resilient. He emerges from the hospital determined to find a silver lining.
Tiffany has her own plethora of problems, seemingly triggered by the tragically young death of her husband, which she partially blames herself for. In the pain and confusion that followed that loss, she began to act out sexually—eventually getting fired for “sleeping with everybody in the office.” And although the extent of her mental health issues are never explicitly stated—many psychologists who have discussed the film on record have guessed that it’s borderline personality disorder (and I wouldn’t disagree)—she is clearly grieving, unstable, vulnerable, and struggling.
When it comes to mental health, people very rarely get well, or even better, in the ways in which we think they will. The part of us wanting to make sense of things often searches out an ever-elusive silver bullet of causation, something to help us make sense of the dysfunction—a chemical imbalance, a childhood trauma, a broken heart—and we are equally drawn to a magical cure: a pill, catharsis, a new love. But the truth of the matter is that mental illness, far more often than not, is vastly complex in its origins: an interplay of past experiences, learned responses, neural wiring, environmental stressors, and genetic predisposition. Finding your way out of that hole is often just as multi-faceted (and usually far more practical than romantic)—some combination of support, medication, therapy, exercise, structure, routine, mindfulness, and a handful of other things. And some disorders—including the ones most on display in Silver Linings Playbook—can’t ever really be wholly “cured” at all.
The admirable thing about Silver Linings Playbook is how readily it grasps the complexity of illness and healing and how it finds a way, subtly, to depict this onscreen. If you’re not paying attention you might think that love (and/or a dance competition) somehow cures Pat’s bi-polar disorder. But, if you look a little closer, you’ll soon notice that a whole host of other factors played into his recovery—regularly taking his medication, for starters (which is typically one of the most difficult things to get someone with bi-polar to do), but also exercise, routine, therapy with a therapist he actually trusts and connects with, family support, making new social connections and renewing old ones. You’ll also notice that, by film’s end, he’s not “cured”—it’s made more or less clear, even in the final scene, that this is something he’ll have to live with and stay on top of and manage forever. He’s just happier now—in love and less alone, with some hard-won victories under his belt—which tends to make any life at least a little bit easier.
And, while Pat and Tiffany’s struggles are painted with the largest brush, Silver Linings Playbook makes space for a handful of supporting characters who also suffer, in one way or another, with various personal issues. It’s a film filled with flawed (but trying) characters—from Pat’s own parents (his father’s explosive temper has gotten him a lifetime ban from attending Eagles games, and is now mostly repressed through various obsessive-compulsive rituals and an awful gambling habit; his mother is the classic peacekeeping enabler), to his best friend (trapped in a domestic straitjacket of a life by a controlling wife, left with little outlet but to listen to old Metallica records in his basement late at night and fantasize about smashing things), to his well-intentioned but certifiably unstable roommate (Chris Tucker) from the psychiatric hospital, to the next-door neighbor boy who keeps trying to “interview” Pat about being crazy (played by none other than David O. Russell’s own bi-polar son, who was the original inspiration behind Russell’s decision to make the film).
These characters, each with their own tangible energy, swirl around each other throughout the film, a panoply of human frailty and resilience. We know these people, though, because we are these people. Silver Linings Playbook is not simply “a movie about mental illness.” It has its sights set on a much larger theme: the human condition (or, in Russell’s own words, “the fabric of life”). How we live, love, and connect. How we struggle, disappoint, and persevere. How we dance and watch football and find ways to pass the time. How we need each other, families and friends, in various ways, large and small. How, at the end of the day, we’re all just walking each other home.
Chad Perman is the Editor-in-Chief of Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is a writer and therapist, living in Seattle with his wife and their two children.