For those like me who have only ever known the actor Bradley Cooper from a role in some outrageous comedy (think “The Hangover”), you might be surprised to find, as I did, that Cooper can really act well. I imagine it requires certain skills to act well in over-the-top comedies too, but it’s difficult to imagine what sort of finesse and attention to character development is required when the overarching goal of the film is to push-limits and make people laugh. The recent film Silver Linings Playbook, staring Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (best known as “Katniss” from the film version of The Hunger Games), is an excellent movie. Cooper and Lawrence do something, at least in my opinion, that few actors known for a very narrow type of previous work can do — they succeed in embodying and presenting new, real, and complex characters.
For those who are not familiar with the storyline from the film or the book from which it’s based — The Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel by Matthew Quick — it centers on Pat, a former high school substitute teacher, who is released from a mental-health facility in Baltimore to move back with his parents in Philadelphia. As the story goes on, we learn the details of what led to his eight-month hospitalization. A major theme throughout, connected to this hospitalization, is Pat’s obsession with reconciling his marriage and getting back together with his wife (I won’t say more, for fear of spoiling the movie/book).
We learn that Pat suffers from bipolar disorder and we see him struggle with wanting not to take his medication (often during manic cycles), suffer the pain of delusion and fear, and try to make sense of a life that is, at times, very surreal and scary. Enters, then, a young woman, Tiffany. She is a recent widow and someone who has, without as clear a diagnosis (she self-descriptively says “crazy,” others also follow that lead in describing her), her own struggles with depression and other mental-health issues. For some reason, Tiffany seems able to break through Pat’s wall of distorted reality, mania, fear, and depression. That’s all I’ll say about that.
While this film does bear signs of a hollywood movie, there are some genuine moments of complexity and truthfulness that break through the story to elicit something of a reaction from the audience or reader. There is something very real about these characters, at least inasmuch as you can ascertain such reality in two hours.
The sense of reality of the characters in this story — including the slightly neurotic father (Robert De Niro) and tired, but unconditionally loving mother (Jacki Weaver) — was confirmed in my case by the reflection it evoked in me about my first year of ministry with the friars.
Nearly eight-years ago, I entered the Franciscan Order as a postulant, lived in a friary at a parish in the Bronx, and worked three days a week at a housing center the friars operated in midtown Manhattan for formerly homeless, mentally ill people. I remember being a little afraid after receiving that ministry assignment, I had very little experience with actual people with severe mental illness. What I thought I knew, I learned from TV, books, and the movies. There is also a general, if low-grade, fear that seems to haunt our contemporary society with regard to those we label “mentally ill,” which both accounts for the general stigmas associated with diagnosed women and men and the uncertainty about what to expect that afflicted me early on.
This fear of “madness” is exactly what the French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests arises to replace more ancient fears of leprosy and the like, and which ultimately leads to the widespread confinement of such diagnosed people — something the movie character Pat knows all about after his eight-month stay in Baltimore.
Although it sounds trite, what I came to realize in New York City was that those labeled “mentally ill” or “crazy” or “mad” or any of the other monikers associated with that social (or medical) status are real people too. They have histories, fears, joys, anxieties, struggles, intelligence, skills, and so on, like everybody else. Aspects of their daily experience are more difficult to negotiate in society than the “average person” (whatever that means). I formed friendships, learned from and came to really admire and appreciate many of these wonderful people. Their lives are difficult and, many times, very sad.
I saw this come through in Silver Linings Playbook in a perceptible way. You see it in the reactions of parents, in family members, in lifelong friends — they are afraid, especially early on, and don’t know what to expect from Pat. He has outbursts, can be violent, but we realize that this is something outside of his control, it is an effect of a world that only exists in his personal reality, a world that is difficult to reconcile with the world of others.
The relationship that arises, from an unlikely and initially awkward friendship between Pat and Tiffany, does so imperfectly and (in true novel/hollywood form) romantically, but it reveals that fear is not the right response, love, patience, and understanding are the only way forward.
I hope that this movie has a positive impact on the social perception of mental illness, although I know it’s unreasonable to expect a popular film to have any measurable impact. There is, as a fellow friar told me weeks back in encouraging me to see this movie, a story of redemption here. A story of reconciliation, in the literal sense, of bringing together pieces of a life — of lives — broken apart. Not all stories that begin and continue in a similar way end on such a hollywood happy note, but the reality of personhood, dignity, and humanity remains the same no less in the far-too-often sad stories of everyday experiences.