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What’s so Funny about Therapeutic Dysfunction?

Silver Linings Playbook
What’s so Funny about Therapeutic Dysfunction?

The “making of” documentary bound with the Blu-ray version of Silver Linings Playbook is subtitled: “The Movie That Became A Movement”. The movement is the current American interest in a malady suffered by the main character, Patrick, played by Bradley Cooper: bi-polar disorder. As opposed to most such documentaries, this one only briefly discusses the music, the direction, the variety of acting styles employed in the film or anything else having to do with the techniques of filmmaking. Instead, the short film explores the malady itself and the way it comes out in the film.  Such experts as the head of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Oz of television medical fame, and even Patrick Kennedy, former Congressman and one of the famous Kennedy clan of Massachusetts who has the illness, give their insights into the way the film makes authentic and sympathetic a pressing problem of our time and how we can help people who experience that problem on a daily basis be able to integrate into our society once they recognize and begin treating the disorder.

This is a movie from the heart. Its director, David O. Russell, has a son who is bi-polar, and he had for years been looking for a story that would depict on screen the trials of this group in a way that would give them hope and help them to become part of the broader society in a real way. When Sydney Pollack, the late, great director of such films as Out of Africa and Tootsie, first gave Russell the novel and questioned whether he would be able to translate it to the silver screen, Russell answered that he knew exactly how to do it because he had so much experience seeing how his son responded in real life situations. An opinion on whether he accomplished that or not requires the same knowledge Russell has of bi-polar. One can say that Russell and his actors succeed admirably in presenting a believable portrayal of two people (Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, also suffers from it) finding a silver lining in their relationship with each other that gives them hope for a modicum of normalcy in the craziness of their lives.

Russell’s style of filmmaking is not universally applauded. Mahnola Dargis, film critic for the New York Times, adopting Andrew Sarris’s categories to describe directors, says this about Russell: “When Mr. Russell… makes a movie like Silver Linings Playbook, he seems a model of Expressive Esoterica, those directors whose ‘deeper virtues,’ as Sarris wrote, ‘are often obscured by irritating idiosyncrasies on the surface.’ At other times Mr. Russell seems a better fit with the Lightly Likable: ‘talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of unpretentiousness.’”

We should want, I believe, directors who so care about their subject that they become emotionally involved with it, and their passion comes through on screen. One can of course go to far with this in art and the result is an incoherent mess; the viewer must always be respected as someone to be seduced to the filmmaker’s point of view, and Russell accomplishes this dramatically in Playbook, as the huge box office will attest.

That, however, is just the problem for the Christian viewer of films like Playbook. It is important for the believer to give the author of any work the respect to allow him or her to speak, as C. S. Lewis pointed out about literature so effectively in his Experiment in Criticism. We must view a film, taking it all in, letting the writer, director, actors and the vast array of other participants in its making to have their chance to persuade us of their point of view. But then we need to pull back, to objectify that experience, to break the film and its story down and analyze what it is really saying about the reality it describes and whether or not we accept it as fitting that reality or failing to do so.

And this is why Silver Linings Playbook is such a good movie to discuss. It deals with a subject everyone in our society needs to understand, but one, which raises a variety of questions. How do we go about helping those with bi-polar disorder? How do parents (played superbly by Jacki Weaver, less so by Robert De Niro in the film) help their adult children with this complicated sickness? What is the place of forgiveness, of acceptance, of love in the thorny situations that inevitably arise when dealing with this strange illness, so knotty when it comes to perceptions of reality? In fact what does Playbook have to teach us about perceptions of the truth as opposed to objectivity in the first place? All these questions arise in this very interesting film.

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