Catching up on the movies I missed last year slaving over my novel draft, last night I watched Silver Linings Playbook. The film is about a young man, Pat Solitano, from a working class Italian family in north Philadelphia, who returns to his parents’ house after treatment for bi-polar disorder and “anger management” issues, i.e., an inclination to throw violent nutties. The “inciting incident,” of the protagonist’s narrative arc is the moment (shown in rapid-fire flashback) when Pat, at the time working as a substitute teacher in the local high school, finds his wife getting it on in the shower with the balding history teacher of the same school. Pat (Bradley Cooper) throttles the horny pedagogue, nearly strangling him with the metal shower hose and earning himself eight months in a Baltimore mental hospital.
Pat’s all-consuming desire (a/k/a ‘signature’) is to reconnect with his wife Nikki, the love of his life despite everything. Pat is as convinced of the certainty of this happening as that other ‘mentally ill’ protagonist, Don Quixote, was convinced that yonder windmills were giants. (In fact, Nikki, unseen after the shower flashback till late in the film, is, as it were, Pat’s Dulcinea.)
This classic quest fulfillment narrative demands that Pat face a series of escalating obstacles to the fulfillment of that quest. Indeed, most of these obstacles are served up by the greatest obstacle of them all: a beautiful young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who, since the accidental death of her husband, has also been suffering her own mental problems—guilt-induced depression, presenting as rampant promiscuity (i.e., she serially fucked eleven co-workers, male and female, at her workplace). When she and Pat lock eyes at a dinner party, you know Pat has a long row to hoe if he’s ever to find his way back to his adulterous Dulcinea.
So as not to spoil the ending if you haven’t seen the film, I’ll say only that the ending is happy and that this film is a romantic comedy. This might come as a surprise after the plot details given above. (Okay, fucking eleven officemates is pretty hilarious—especially if that had been shown in a rapid-fire flashback).
My question is whether the director, David O. Russell, succeeds in marrying romantic comedy and mental illness in this ambitious and clever film. The elements of romantic comedy are all there: love at first sight—though one or both of the lovers may not admit it at first; the aforesaid happy ending; and humorous touches, e.g., Robert DeNiro’s performance as Pat’s OCD father, who, banned for life from Philadelphia Eagles games for beating up on opposing fans, fondles a green Eagles handkerchief ( à la Captain Queeg’s steel balls) as he watches his team on TV. But what about the mental illness?
Therein lies my problem: the two ‘mentally ill’ main characters, though they both deliver excellent performances, don’t convince me that they’ve been through what they the film claims they’ve been through. First, they’re both beautiful physical specimens, and presented that way in the film. This isn’t to say that the mentally ill cannot be gorgeous people. In my experience, however, people tend not to look so beautiful when in the throes of mental illness. (Consider the blank mask of depression; or the anger, world-weariness or world-wariness that often reveal themselves through the eyes or as a lack of attention to grooming.)
Rather than depicting mental illness in all its scary, unsettling ugliness, the director, I believe, airbrushes it, serving up a film that’s a tad slick, geared for maximum marketability and minimum audience discomfort. For example, his characters’ illness is more a thing of the past than the present: 1) Pat, we’re told, used to be overweight, but has trimmed down and jacked-up during his eight months in the hospital. (Apparently there is a movement toward fitness programs in premier mental institutions, but from what I’ve seen, these aren’t available to most mental patients, who are at high risk of obesity.) 2) Tiffany “was a whore.” 3) Even the shower incident—the violent episode that landed Pat in the mental slammer—was an understandable, if not legally justifiable, act against a cuckolding intruder.
As for the present, Pat has a few more violent episodes, but the bodily harm done is either accidental (Pat elbowing his mother during a tantrum) or, again, justifiable (e.g., Pat defending his brother from attackers). Tiffany, who also has anger issues, explodes once, but the only casualties are dishes. Pat’s lack of attention to grooming now is limited to his wearing a black plastic trash bag as a poncho when he jogs—though he actually looks good in it: it accentuates his hunkish physique. Nor does Pat’s obsessive compulsion to jog seem the least bit ‘crazy’ in contemporary society.
Certainly comedy and mental illness can work together on the page or the screen, as in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Infinite Jest. But in these works, the depiction of mental illness is raw, disturbing and chillingly convincing. Granted, they’re not romantic comedies. And though I haven’t yet read the novel by Matthew Quick on which Silver Linings Playbook is based, I’ve been told by one who has that, in her opinion, the Pat of the novel is a much more difficult, less likable character than the film Pat. I hope so.
I’m eager to read for myself whether Mr. Quick has succeeded in marrying romantic comedy and mental illness. But whether or not he has, maybe someone reading this post will decide to give that marriage a shot as well. What an achievement to paint the picture of two people who, out of the terrifying isolation of mental illness, find a way, through their dearly-bought wisdom and compassion—and share of hilarious missteps—to love and, yes!, live happily ever after.