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Shrink at the Movies: “Silver Linings Playbook” (2013)

[WARNING: MILD SPOILERS and quoting offensive slurs, in an academic way]

I must say, I was very impressed with the screenplay, direction, and performances in “Silver Linings Playbook”. Obviously, a film about someone with mental illness (Bipolar Disorder, to be exact) is going to interest me and the mission of this essay series.

However, I almost boycotted this film, because as a gay man, I was appalled at Bradley Cooper’s involvement in “The Hangover” series, especially the first one, where he approaches a friend’s (a straight male) house to pick him up for a road-trip to Vegas in a car, and yells toward the house, “Paging Dr. Faggot! Paging Dr. Faggot!”. My assertion is that if the script had called for Cooper’s character to say, “Paging Dr. Nigger!” that he would have walked off the set and called SAG. Sure; that was the screenwriter’s fault, and the studio’s for allowing the slur, and Cooper was contractually obligated to say the line as written, but where was the outcry? The reason I spell out both of those slurs, above, is to demonstrate that those slurs should carry equal weight as to how appalled we are at hearing them in film or seeing them in print; I’m not condoning the use of either, and that’s my point. Both should be considered equally offensive, along with many other slurs I could quote, but they’re not; the first one is still considered “acceptable” in film, and the second one isn’t. The particular slur Cooper uses is especially egregious, since in the context of “The Hangover”, Cooper’s character is NOT a buffoon or villain (from whom we might expect slurs), but is the “hero” of the movie — who stands by his friend and ultimately leads the group to resolution. He’s the handsome, “cool one” of the group, and the last shot of the film is him lovingly holding his little boy on his lap at a barbecue, the “ideal” husband and family man. Sorry, but in my Universe, the “ideal” husband and family man doesn’t use any slurs, including the “F-word”, 2.0.

Even in “SLP”, they lost me for a bit in the middle when Patrick’s therapist, whom Patrick encounters in the parking lot of a football game, rough-houses with other fans and refers to the opposing team as “cock-suckers!” That word is still considered an anti-gay slur. If the character had referred to the opposing team as “cunt-lickers”, the so-called “joke” would not have worked, because that would have implied their heterosexuality, and that wouldn’t be an “insult” to the other team. When are we going to be enlightened enough not to use anti-gay slurs in film as insults? Because we’ve (mostly) already gotten away from film “heroes” using other racial/ethnic/cultural slurs in dialogue, yet the anti-gay slurs remain uttered occasionally by otherwise “respected” characters. I call bullshit.

As much as I love movies, I think they “get it wrong” in the depiction of therapists (ethical, good ones anyway) MOST of the time. First of all, I don’t think a therapist would necessarily yell slurs in the parking lot of a football stadium, least of all in front of a current patient and his family. He also wouldn’t accompany the patient home after the parking-lot melee; he would have observed appropriate boundaries and seen Patrick later. Other than those, the therapist character makes some good points in the scenes where he is in session with Patrick, especially regarding cognitive re-framing of Patrick’s assumptions, and helping Patrick brainstorm alternative interpretations and behavior choices.

So, after deciding to give Mr. Cooper a fair shake, I must say, I was impressed with a very careful, studied, accurate performance by Cooper of someone with Bipolar Disorder. I’ve worked with hundreds of these patients in outpatient and inpatient psychiatric settings, and he “gets it”. It’s a testament to the screenplay (especially), Cooper’s acting talent (and slightly wild-eyed look, naturally), and of course careful direction.

Cooper plays Patrick always on the edge of madness and sanity, with a certain “wacky-but-wise” humor. He also deftly conveys a person with Bipolar Disorder (we don’t say “a Bipolar”; that’s perjorative; people are not diseases, they HAVE diseases — if I hear “that schizophrenic” or “You know, he’s HIV” one more time, I’m gonna decompensate myself). Cooper demonstrates the states of being unmedicated and unstable, versus being on medication and much more stable. That’s the way it works MOST (OK, perhaps not ALL) of the time.

Jennifer Lawrence as “Tiffany” is also masterful, and I have a feeling the Academy might agree with me (time will tell). Certainly the Golden Globes and SAG Awards thought so. Her disability is more subtle, and is less textbook diagnosis. She certainly has some form of hypsersexuality, and she mentions the use of antidepressants, but my take on her is that she is in acute bereavement over the loss of her spouse and probably has Postraummatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from it (on a famous scale of human stressors one can endure, death of a spouse is a 100). Her manipulative behavior (see the movie) might also indicate Borderline Personality Disorder. She matches Cooper carefully, and watching her eyes looking into his in most scenes is a master class in acting and relating to a scene partner. If she wins an Oscar, it will be for best acting, yes, but also best re-acting and being attuned to a co-star in what we often call “screen chemistry.”

Other actors (especially the obvious, Robert DeNiro) certainly lend quality to the film. Even DeNiro’s character, Patricio, could be diagnosed according to the DSM-IV-TR as having a gambling addiction, and perhaps an Impulse Control Disorder, in addition to his obvious “superstition” and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What a family.

The themes I like best about “SLP” include how we don’t become perfect and then enter relationships; we enter relationships as imperfect beings, and then grow, together, over time, with a perhaps equally imperfect spouse (although my spouse is, indeed, perfect, so you can’t go by that, always). But even Patrick admits to Tiffany, about his beloved estranged wife, “Sure, we wanted to change each other.”

I think there are also positive themes about family. DeNiro’s character actively reflects on his role as a father, and what he wished he had done differently in raising Patrick and his brother. I’m sure many a parent goes through a woulda-shoulda-coulda (the good ones, anyway), and DeNiro, while still playing his usual stock character, breathes his usual life into an already-good script.

The film’s somewhat “twisted”-but-happy ending (that seems to be a curious blend of “Charly” with “Dirty Dancing”) does a great educational service to the public about people living with psychiatric disabilities to show that they, too, are capable of loving relationships. It also shows the value of community supports versus institutionalization, a model that I teach my USC graduate students called “Psychosocial Rehabilitation”.

Any film that brings awareness, sensitivity, and compassion to people living with mental illness is a good one in my playbook, “silver linings” variety, or not.

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