Silver Linings Playbook is a movie that has grown on me in the days since I saw it. As I was watching it, I was bothered by some of the conveniences and conventions utilized by the story to get its characters to their happy endings. Upon further reflection though, I am beguiled by the movie’s clever balancing of horror and humor, the real difficulty involved in being in relationship with someone (or many someones) under psychological distress and the patience, good nature, and graciousness needed to make those relationships work. Sliver Linings Playbook earns its lightness because it takes seriously its darkness, and I can allow its narrative liberties in return.
The story follows a man, Pat, who has just been released from a mental hospital under the care of his mother. He was “in” for 8 months following a violent episode in which he assaulted a man with whom his wife was having an affair. We learn quickly that his father also has a history of violent outbursts and still has many tendencies that seem to be evidence of mental illness. Pat’s mother is at the center of it all, trying earnestly to hold the family together.
That all sounds very dour, and it is at times. Pat’s mental instability is ever present as the story’s events unfold. As unforeseen stresses catch him off-guard in moments of peace and happiness, his instability bubbles over like an unwatched stew. Since everyone in the story seems a bit abnormal, those moments come quite often. When they come, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s hand-held camera puts the audience right in the middle of the madness. The camera is in the actors’ faces, and so they are in ours, yelling, accosting, and pulling us in every direction. It’s unsettling, but it’s also effective at getting us to sympathize with Pat. We learn compassion for him, because we understand what it’s like to be him.
More so than madness, however, this movie is drenched in compassion, of the movie for its characters and of the characters for each other. As I mentioned before, everyone in this story is a little off, but they all very much care for each other, and they go to great lengths to help heal one another.
Some films are guilty of treating the mentally ill as subjects for clinical study (something “they” are and “we’re” not) and sources of dramatic tension (only there to liven up the story). Silver Linings Playbook is explicitly critical of this kind of approach. Note the number of times the high school kid shows up camera in hand to document his neighbor’s instability and the many cads who proposition Tiffany. Instead, Silver Linings Playbook depicts mental illness as a spectrum on which we all fall to some degree.
On this spectrum, we are as ill as we are isolated, and healing comes not solely from within ourselves but from the combined effort of ourselves and our community. As we have received, so we ought to give, and the worst someone can do is to leach off the instability of others. Rather than lecture though, Silver Linings Playbook simply depicts this better, self-giving nature and makes me desire more of it in myself and in my community.