silver-linings-playbookI recently saw Silver Linings Playbook, the romantic comedy starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Laurence as potential mates whose combined psychiatric maladies evince a fair portion of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders.  Pat Solitano Jr. (Cooper) has just completed an eight-month court-ordered stint in a psychiatric hospital.  The staff thinks he should stay longer (one doctor protests that he’s just getting used to the place), but his mother Delores (Jackie Weaver) signs him out against medical advice.  Pat claims he’s fine, though the evidence suggests otherwise.  He insists that he has a strong marriage with his estranged wife Nikki, but we learn he was hospitalized after he found her having sex with a fellow teacher and proceeded to beat her lover senseless.  He becomes wild-eyed and agitated whenever he hears “Ma Cherie Amour,” their wedding song.   He throws Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms through his bedroom window because he doesn’t like the ending, then wakes up his parents at 4 a.m. to harangue them about the book.  He seems oblivious to the obstacles that  Nikki’s restraining order against him might present to his plans for reconciliation.  He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; more noticeably, he is an emotionally damaged person using denial and hostility in a futile effort to cope.  He is initially indifferent to the doleful Tiffany (Laurence), a recent widow whose response to her loss included sleeping with everyone in her office, resulting in her dismissal.  Neither of them is at all ready for a significant relationship.  This being a romance, though, things happen.

The movie minimizes the misery that mental illness causes—an understandable weakness, given that it’s a comedy.  Screenplay writer (and director) David O. Russell seems to suggest that there isn’t much difference between people bearing psychiatric diagnoses and the rest of us.  If those around Pat were compasses, all of them would be pointing somewhere well away from true north.  His father, Pat Sr. (Robert DiNiro), a bookie obsessed with Eagles football, tries to get everyone to perform inane rituals in order to give the Eagles “good juju.”  His mother is caterer to everyone else’s craziness.  His friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) is a henpecked husband whose mild-mannered veneer periodically cracks to reveal rage.   Even his doctor (Anupum Kher), who is reasonably therapeutic in the clinic, seems a little unbalanced when Pat runs into him at an Eagles game.  The primary difference between those labeled as ill and everyone else seems to be the label itself.  It would be nice if psychiatric disorders could be fixed by rubbing off the label, but this approach hasn’t proved all that successful in clinical practice.

Exploring the nature of mental disorders isn’t the focus of the movie, though.  Its concerns are romance and recovery.  The romance is sweet if not entirely believable.  What’s more interesting is what the movie has to say about recovery from emotional disturbance.  At first, Pat espouses optimism and hard work as salubrious for what ails him.  He learned in the hospital to avoid negativity and to focus on achieving his goals.  If you’re positive, he tells his doctor, there’s a chance for a silver lining.  The problem, of course, is that what he’s believing in and working for—patching up the relationship with Nikki—is extremely unlikely to happen.  Besides, his preoccupation with Nikki blinds him to the attractions of Tiffany, the person who is interested in him and available for a relationship.  The film discourages unrealistic yearning in preference for the sentiments expressed by Crosby, Stills, and Nash:  “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

So recovery comes through entering real relationships, not chasing impossible ones.  Such relationships have to be based on acceptance, not on critical judgment or a condescending attitude.  A key event in Pat and Tiffany’s relationship occurs on their first date (which Pat maintains isn’t a date because he will soon be reunited with Nikki).  As they sit in a diner eating raisin bran (chosen because you don’t eat raisin bran on a date), Tiffany reveals the details of her sexual exploits.   Pat is spellbound, but is concerned that if they spend time together Nikki may see them as equally disturbed.  “It’s just not right lumping you and I together,” he proclaims.  Tiffany explodes, “You think I’m crazier than you.”  She knocks the raisin bran off the table and runs outside.  Pat follows, futilely trying to explain away what he just said.  He learns his lesson—he never again makes invidious comparisons—and that not only helps their relationship but fosters Pat’s own gradually dawning self-awareness.

Another point: relationships that facilitate recovery are equitable, not exploitive.   Pat wants to skirt the restraining order by having Tiffany deliver a letter to Nikki.  She agrees, but later backs out, saying that she has always done things for others that aren’t good for her but won’t do that anymore.  Pat agrees to a reciprocal favor, namely be her partner in a dance contest.  Both see this as a fair exchange, and, for each, it represents progress in their ability to balance their interests with those of others.  Relationships conducive to recovery also entail looking out for each other’s well-being.  For example, Pat chases away a man who wishes to take advantage of Tiffany’s sexual availability, telling him that she’s wounded and needs protection.  Such shelter not only draws the two of them closer; it also provides affirmation of Tiffany’s worth.

Unfortunately, the plot includes duplicity on Tiffany’s part.  This adds something to the dramatic tension and, in the film, doesn’t detract from either protagonist’s recovery or from the progression of their relationship.  In real life, dishonesty is a poison both intrapsychically and interpersonally.  Apart from this false note, the film works not only as a romantic comedy but as a story of how relationships foster wholeness.  In the end, Pat and Tiffany are not only better because they have each other, but better because they’ve grown.  Fortunately, healthy relationships help us change for the better not only in romantic comedies but in real life.