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Bipolar Disorder: A Silver Lining in a Mainstream Film? Part 1

The Oscar-nominated film Silver Linings Playbook has offered a new perspective on bipolar disorder through the unique medium of cinema, but, has this film really taught us anything new about how we view mental health issues?

Silver Linings Playbook has garnered much critical acclaim thanks to its take on mental health issues, in particular for its depiction of the lead character’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Played by Bradley Cooper, Pat is a former schoolteacher who was committed to a psychiatric institution for eight months following his vicious attack on the man he caught naked in the shower with his wife.

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Whilst undergoing this psychiatric treatment, Pat eschews medication because of the side effects, and instead focuses on his own strategy of ‘Excelsior’ (‘ever upward’ in Latin). Pat channels the new insights he has gained from therapy into a kind of single-minded positivity, believing that he can use this inner fortitude to overcome his struggles with bipolar disorder, undiagnosed prior to the attack in the shower. Crucially, Pat is certain that this robust positivity will enable him to win back his estranged wife, Nikki, who has not only sold their house and refused any contact with Pat, but also taken out a restraining order.

Upon release from the psychiatric institution, Pat is taken in by his parents; he is full of renewed energy, focused on losing weight, and determined to change his mood swings and unpredictable behavior which were possibly the root cause of his wife’s infidelity. As part of his release conditions, Pat must see a psychiatrist. The dialogue between doctor and patient is one of the film’s early high points, in particular Cooper’s portrayal of a man who is introspective about his disorder and yet utterly incapable of understanding how his behavior affects others.

It is initially tempting to feel empathy for Pat, with his boundless energy, positivity, and determination to reconnect with Nikki. However, it soon becomes clear that these aspects of Pat’s behavior may be motivated by another manic episode. The effects of this mental instability are felt most acutely by his mother; completely loving toward her son and yet clearly at her wits end. Bradley Cooper captures the grandiose and invincible energy of mania brilliantly, letting audiences understand how a bipolar patient is able to function at remarkably high levels and charm those around them with infectious positivity. Silver Linings Playbook portrays, with accuracy and empathy, the reality of manic bipolar symptoms in an everyday context. But of course, what goes up must come down.

Pat’s initial meeting with Tiffany – a young widow emerging from a period of mental instability following the sudden death of her husband – does not go well. Pat and Tiffany are both invited to a dinner hosted by Tiffany’s sister, but the meal goes from uncomfortable to firmly finished after the sisters start arguing. Tiffany leaves, insisting that Pat walk her home. She hits on Pat, gets rejected, and rounds out the night be giving him a firm slap to the face.

This incident is merely one in a series of stress-induced triggers that cause Pat to react quite explosively upon returning to his house that night. Pat’s mother and father find him angry and agitated, searching for his wedding video but unable to find it. A violent family argument ensues, waking up the neighborhood and eventually leading to police involvement.

It is at this point in the film that it becomes clear Pat’s disorder cannot be cured by positive thinking alone. Pat then resumes medication, and somewhat reluctantly enters into a friendship with the persistent Tiffany. She agrees to help him make contact with Nikki, and he agrees to step in as her dance partner for an upcoming competition.

Despite the film never explicitly labeling Tiffany’s condition, her impulsiveness, promiscuity and confrontational nature are clues that suggest her character suffers from borderline personality disorder. All we know is that she has taken medication at some point, and suffered depression prior to the death of her husband.

Tiffany is perhaps more conflicted than she lets on in terms of her own recovery. Whilst it’s clear that the death of her husband triggered extreme behavior, it’s obvious she has battled with mental illness for possibly her entire life. She challenges Pat to ‘look inside himself’ and like what he sees, as she now can, and claims to have put her promiscuous days behind her, despite her initial proposition to Pat. However, Tiffany’s explosive and attention grabbing exit from their first date indicates that the character is far from stable, and has the capacity to act not just impulsively, but with a disregard for safety.

Another character exhibiting mental health issues is Pat’s father; Pat Senior shows classic, ritualistic obsessive compulsive tendencies, most notably while sitting at home and watching his favorite sports team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Through his bookmaking operation, Pat Senior bets recklessly, and believes Pat is a good luck charm who can bring home a win if he attends the all-important Eagles game. Pat goes to the game, but ends up embroiled in a fracas, despite valiant efforts to avoid violence. The Eagles lose, and Pat Senior irrationally blames his son.

There are clear parallels between the behaviors of the characters in Silver Linings Playbook. They are impulsive, explosive, deluded and reckless, with scant regard for the consequences to themselves or others. And yet, their individual conditions are seemingly very different, on paper at least. In a sense then, Silver Linings Playbook shows us is that mental illness can’t always be packaged into a neat box; there is often overlap between different illnesses and the degrees to which a person will experience those symptoms.

It is certainly possible to be highly functioning and yet mentally ill; some people may demonstrate occasional bursts of extreme behavior, and likewise, those in a persistently agitated state can have moment of complete lucidity and restraint. One of this film’s greatest triumphs is that the characters are realistic, functional, and likeable; they have friends, they fall in love, they get married and they are attractive. This portrayal of the mentally ill is in contrast to the one dimensional, medieval view that psychiatric illness forever renders people broken, incoherent, impossible to be around and somehow inferior. Silver Linings Playbook shows the episodic nature of psychiatric illness, and demonstrates how a person with mental health issues experiences both joys and struggles on a day to day basis.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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