Dear Silver Linings Playbook,
There is a risk inherent in creating a movie whose principle drama revolves around mentally ill characters. The risk is that, when viewed from the outside and portrayed by a supposedly sane actor, all kinds of misconceptions and over-exaggerations can occur, making the mentally ill character into a kind of gross caricature. This is rarely done with malicious intent, and in fact is more often than not the fault of over-earnest attempts to reach a kind of ‘veracity’ wholly lacking in nuance. But it happens all the same.
The real shock comes in realizing that you, Silver Linings Playbook, somehow manage to do the exact opposite. Bradley Cooper creates a subtle, nuanced, and entirely believable character struggling with bipolar disorder, but his subtly is drowned out by the overwhelming madness of seemingly every other character around him. It is one thing to take a character who some would call “crazy” and array around him a series of characters who set out to prove that the world is “crazy,” but it is quite another to make an actor inhabit a character with depth and sincerity and plunge him into a madcap work that blunts whatever emotional reaction would could have to his very real struggles. Without level characters to highlight his own faults, he comes off as just another member of the choir.
And make no mistake; Patrick is a character who is ripe for emotional connection and investment. As played by a surprisingly deft Cooper, Patrick is a generally decent and loving man who has to struggle against a very real demon that threatens his happiness – his previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The root of his anger and antisocial personality is only brought to light after he has a particularly violent episode, and as we meet him he is being brought home from a mental hospital.
He is a man at war with his own nature, as firmly committed to changing for the better as he is to getting through his illness without the use of drugs. He is also committed to getting his wife back, a task made all the more difficult by the restraining order she takes out on him, which he views as just a small rut in the road to true happiness for the both of them.
The problems – both for Patrick and for your story – mount when he tries to integrate back into his old life. His parents are at a loss for how to treat him, a problem made all the more difficult to solve thanks to his father’s own unspecified and undiagnosed compulsions. He is a gambling addict, this much is obvious, but he must also indulge a series of batty compulsions in order to see his team on to victory, and he becomes increasingly emotionally unstable as circumstances conspire to keep him from seeing these superstitions through to completion. Robert De Niro plays the character well, especially in one scene where his superstitious compulsions dovetail with his love and estrangement from his son, and yet his character mainly seems to function as an excuse or apologia for Patrick’s own dark impulses.
Patrick’s last remaining friend and his friend’s wife also create another point of juxtapositions for Patrick’s illness, though they too are crazy in their own way, even further softening Patrick’s ailment. They introduce him to Tiffany, a self-diagnosed and generally accepted victim of similarly unspecified mental troubles who sees in Patrick not only a kindred spirit, but a partner in her therapeutic commitment to dance.
Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fine performance, though her character’s ambiguous mental condition turns her from an example of someone under a specific affliction into a sufferer of generalized plot convenient madness. That she somehow manages to create something defined and relatable in this otherwise foggy quagmire of a character is something admirable, and ultimately salvages your tale. She, like Patrick, is someone whose issues are troubling and obvious, but whose spirit makes you root for their eventual deliverance into happiness.
You chart the ways in which Patrick draws himself up by his bootstraps, overcoming not only his own issues by the issues inflicted on him by those around him, and yet something about your story left me cold. You seem to operate on a baseline, elevating yourself from time to time with a burst of powerful acting or wrenching story, and yet in the spaces in between these moments the air leaves you. The madness of the world around Patrick makes his own struggles a banality, and this thoroughly deflates any continued or sustained tension on a narrative level.
Without spoiling it, I can only say that your eventual climax – while genuinely enjoyable in the moment – does nothing to raise up my opinion of you overall. The set up for the final act’s stakes relies on too many people overlooking too many slights and indignations, as well as a fairly starling amount of lies and emotional manipulations. If these conflicts and bits of subterfuge lead to any kind of understanding or moment of clarity perhaps the awkwardness and ham-handedness of the setup could be forgiven, but in the end all is forgiven and all is forgotten.
Your ending wraps everything up in a way that further betrays Cooper and Lawrence’s performances. No matter what, there are struggles in store for their characters, and yet the picture we are left with is one of complete narrative closure. The hints of an entire life lived under the burden of a little understood and difficult to manage condition, which could have made you a more interesting film, are totally absent.
It is disheartening to see so much character-level potential wasted on a plot that requires a sort of rote conclusion. The beats of the story and the arc of the characters are uplifting, but completely undercut by the overarching betrayal of something much more interesting that the actors are attempting to accomplish. In a generally unoriginal story, those performances are the only real silver lining.
Wishing you were something more,
Brian J. Roan