Thursday, February 14, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook -- dealing with mental illness

Director: David Russell, 2012 (R)  

Silver Linings Playbook, the latest film from the director of the 2010 hit The Fighter, presents a moving and powerful portrait of a different kind of fighter. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is no boxer fighting other men, although he spends much of his time exercising. No, Pat is fighting something invisible – mental illness. Bipolar disorder is a much tougher and trickier opponent, one too easily dismissed because it cannot be seen.
As the movie begins, Pat is wrapping up 8 months in a Maryland mental health institute where he has gone to avoid jail after an explosive and violent incident in his home that involved his wife Nicki. Now that his court-mandated period is up his mom, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), is taking him home to Philadelphia where his dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is blissfully unaware of his son’s impending freedom.
Pat Sr has his own problems – OCD behavior, violence of his own, and compulsive gambling. He lives for his beloved Eagles football team, and considers Pat Jr a good-luck charm for the NFL games. Now a bookie, he gambles on these games the money he is saving for his family restaurant business.
When he runs into his best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz), Pat is invited for dinner with Ronnie’s wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) and her kid sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). The dinner gives the first of many deeply funny scenes. But the comedy is acidic, almost caustic, since it is raw and touches deep nerves. While Ronnie and Veronica are trying to set the thirtysomething Pat up with the twentysomething Tiffany in a socially acceptable way, these two show how crazy they are. They cut across politically and socially correct behavior to talk about their current and past medications and their spouses. You see, Tiffany’s husband died and Pat is pining for his wife. In another scene, he declares, “Nikki’s waiting for me to get in shape and get my life back together. Then we’re going to be together.” This is delusional thinking, as she has a restraining order on him and has exited their former home. If we had any doubts about the type of humor and movie we are in, they are removed as Tiffany and Pat stand up and leave the dinner before finishing the main course. They are gone. And after he walks her home, she casually invites him in for sex, a man she met no more than an hour ago.
On paper, the film strikes no chords. It is about living with mental illness. The dialogue is replete with more curse words than a Naval barracks, although to be fair this is probably how such families talk. And there is violence, both within Pat’s family and between ethnic groups. Yet, it comes together to form a sparkling romantic comedy/drama. There are some very funny scenes. There are some very touching, almost sentimental moments. And there are some very tense interactions. But, hey, this is grounded in the reality of a family impacted by mental illness.
Perhaps what makes this succeed is the combination of the script, which has enough turns that make the second and third acts a joy to watch, and the acting. Russell has brought together two generations of actors that are at the top of their games. We all knew De Niro could act, winning his first of two Oscars back in 1975 (for The Godfather Part 2), but recent movies, like Meet the Parents and its sequels and Righteous Kill, have seen his work go into cruise control at best, relying on reputation. But here he has a real character to work with, and he brings it back. Then there are today’s stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. This is Cooper’s first Oscar nomination and perhaps his best work to date. Lawrence showed her potential in 2010’s Winter’s Bone which garnered her a nomination, and she gave a powerful portrayal as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. But here she shows both a greater depth than either of these films. Indeed, of its 8 Academy Award nominations, Silver Linings Playbook is the first film in three decades to gain nominations in all four acting categories since Reds (1981). It is also the first film to get nominated in the “big 5” categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay) since Million Dollar Baby in 2004.
In the second act, once Pat and Tiffany have met, we find Pat needing to get a letter to Nikki and Tiffany is the only person who can manage this. And she offers to do it. But there is a catch. She needs something and only Pat can deliver. At this point, Pat is forced to play her game. To go into the details would be to give too many spoilers away. Suffice it to say, that this forces Tiffany and Pat to work together even as Pat Sr wants Pat to spend time, particularly Sunday afternoons, with him. Conflict is sure to arise ,and it does.
The film does depict a realistic representation of living with mental illness. Pat is in denial. He thinks he can handle his illness through personal exercise and his practice of his magic word “Excelsior”: a process of looking for the silver lining within any situation. But in avoiding his medication, he is deluding himself. His parents know this. His therapist knows this. His friends know it. But he ignores this. Indeed he seems to be running from this.
THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKMany scenes show him running the streets. He is running from his problems, and trying to run back to his wife. But instead, he ends up running into Tiffany time and time again.
Although it may be positive and healthy to look for silver linings, they are not always there. Trials and difficulties come. They are part of this life. The Apostle James tells us: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas 1:2-4). We may look ahead to the character growth that such trials brings, but they may not always produce circumstantial results that are positive. As has been said, bad things do happen to good people.
As much as attitude can be important, when medical issues prevail medication becomes preeminent. Some illnesses cannot be beaten by sheer willpower or mindpower. Prayer can help, certainly (Jas. 5:16). But we should not turn away from therapies that include prescribed drugs.
The most unbiblical and potentially disturbing issue is that of superstition. Several times Pat is told to “read the signs” as though these are magically going to point him to his future. Pat Sr is convinced that his Sunday rituals involving remotes, handkerchiefs and ultimately his son bring victory to the Eagles. And a key scene has Tiffany rewrite his playbook, but with a new set of superstitions. It is her way of pushing his buttons and getting him on her team.
The Bible denigrates superstition. In one passage, the prophet Isaiah speaks for the Lord against his people: “They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines” (Isa. 2:6). By extension, superstition is placed alongside divination and then sorcery or witchcraft (Deut. 18:10; 1 Ki. 9:22; Gal. 5:20). When we place our trust in ritualistic behavior, we are turning from the one who has control over history to symbolic actions. We are turning away from the living God to idols. Superstition is hence a form of idolatry, a way we can control events that should rightly be beyond our control.
There is a silver lining in this playbook. Despite this unbiblical worldview, the positive attitude approach of Pat’s Excelsior and the genuine chemistry of the leads make us root for them all the way to the Christmas climax. Clearly this is not your typical romantic comedy, not even of the quirky independent film genre. But unless you have a sensitive ear or a delicate constitution, in which case you might choose to skip this film, Silver Linings Playbook will have you smiling and dancing all the way home.
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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