Silver Linings Playbook is the story of two adults living with mental illness. They come together to compete in a ballroom dancing contest that can lead them to their individual goals. For Pat, a man recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it is the opportunity to prove to his estranged wife that he is a changed man in control of his rage issues. For Tiffany, a woman recently diagnosed with clinical depression, it is the opportunity to fulfill her dreams of competing in the dance contest after her husband passed away.
Let me start by assigning some credit where it is due. Writer/director David O. Russell helped leading man Bradley Cooper construct a very realistic portrayal of bipolar disorder. Pat rings true in every frame of the film. He is a man confused and betrayed by his own life, forced to accept that his father is not solely responsible for a lifetime of unnecessary obsessive and aggressive behavior. Silver Linings Playbook could be excerpted for use in classrooms to introduce students to what bipolar disorder can look like. It's amazing that a story so firmly rooted in the structure of the traditional romantic comedy can have such a high level of sensitivity toward a serious medical condition.
The same cannot be said for what David O. Russell gave Jennifer Lawrence to work with in her portrayal of Tiffany. Lawrence's performance is a tour de force, hitting every crescendo, mood swing, and act of contempt her character shoots out in a believable way for that character; it's just not a believable characterization of clinical depression.
From elementary school until my first year in college, I battled clinical depression. It took me years of complaining to my doctor to actually have him take my mental health concerns seriously. I found myself nodding along during Silver Linings Playbook when they rattled off the list of medications that make you feel numb and incapable of feeling anything. Been there, done that, faced the side effects that helped create huge gaps in the memory of my childhood. And like the characters in the film, I made the difficult choice to go unmedicated because I could not function in a constant cloud.
From my experience (and the similar struggles of my core group of friends at the time), I cannot in good faith get behind the creation of Tiffany onscreen. I don't know if it is the fault of Russell or the source novel's author Matthew Quick, but the character doesn't ring true.
To put it bluntly, Tiffany is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a scowl instead of a smile. She is a series of ideal free spirit cliches wrapped up with a frown and a dead husband. She is an endless ball of energy, able to stalk Pat wherever he goes at a full speed run, blow-up in public without any sense of shame or embarrassment at the attention it creates, and run weeks of high energy dance rehearsals without missing a step. For a woman supposedly suffering from a condition that causes low self-esteem, lack of energy, and disinterest in formerly pleasurable activities, Tiffany sure seems upbeat, energetic, and overly confident in herself.
These things wouldn't bother me if Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook was medicated or seeing a therapist. She is not. She is proudly unmedicated and miraculously living a life filled with wonder and adventure. Sucking your teeth, pouting all the time, and wearing black clothing is not clinical depression. It is lazy, offensive writing that shouldn't be rewarded. A character you should be rooting for becomes a constant distraction of "look at me! I'm crazy! Watch me scream and act up!" insanity cliches that don't even bear a passing resemblance to the condition she's clearly defined with in her first scene.
Why is it that films featuring such terrible representations of mental health conditions are always lauded with critical acclaim when they trivialize the actual suffering of people with these problems? Mental health is not a quirk you use whenever it's convenient to the story you're telling. It is something that can control everything you do in your daily life. You can't just shut it off because it's convenient to someone else's story. You're stuck with it until you find a treatment plan that works for you and hopefully leads to your recovery.
So much of Silver Linings Playbook is very well done. The acting, especially from the ensemble cast including Robert DeNiro, Jackie Weaver, and Julia stiles, is incredible. The structure of the story and subversion of romantic comedy cliches is admirable. The tension created in Pat's family by his bipolar disorder is shocking because of its brutal honesty.
Yet, the entire plot hinges on a character that has all the real world credibility of Tinker Bell or Big Bird. Tiffany is a tool of total fantasy used to push the plot in directions it did not need to go in. This story could have been told in a much more rewarding way if there was any sense of believability to Tiffany's character beyond her first and last scene; there isn't. It's all artifice and cliche that will hopefully look as foolish as it is to everyone a few years down the line.
Cartoonish portrayals of mental illness never hold up in the long run. Silver Linings Playbook will be no exception.
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