“Silver Linings Playbook” review: mental illness plus ballroom dancing equals a madcap surprise

“Silver Linings Playbook” review: mental illness plus ballroom dancing equals a madcap surprise
Alonso Duralde Reuters
7:24 p.m. CST, November 14, 2012
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) – Hardcore art-house enthusiasts might remember the 2003 documentary “The Five Obstructions,” in which Lars von Trier has his friend and mentor Jørgen Leth remake one of Leth’s own films several times with different challenges involved. (Shoot it in Cuba with no set and no shot that lasts longer than 12 frames, film it as a cartoon, etc.)

Writer-director David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “I Heart Huckabee’s”) returns to the big screen with “Silver Linings Playbook,” and his triumph seems all the more miraculous given a set of obstructions that even von Trier might have found excessively difficult:

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Create a romantic comedy about mental illness that also involves ballroom dancing and pro-football fandom. Make Bradley Cooper act rather than letting him coast on his charm. And get low-key, empathetic performances from Robert De Niro (one of the best actors of the last 40 years, and one of the worst actors of the last 20) and Chris Tucker.

Adapting the novel by Matthew Quick, Russell has done all that in an extraordinary balancing act; “Playbook” often surprises, even as it constantly threatens to run off the rails. “This shouldn’t be working,” I kept thinking to myself along the way, “and yet, it does.”

If you’re looking for a realistic portrayal of bipolar disorder or OCD, seek that elsewhere. Characters here are “crazy” in the lovable, recognizable way of mainstream American cinema, but once you’ve accepted that context, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Cooper stars as Pat, a substitute teacher just getting out of a mental institution after a violent episode involving his wife and her secret lover. Moving back in with his parents Pat Sr. (De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver), Pat focuses on getting his wife back, not letting something as minor as her restraining order get in the way.

Pat’s manic episodes find their counterpart in Pat Sr.’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, which he’s managed to camouflage as extreme fandom for the Philadelphia Eagles. (If someone moves the remote, the team will lose!) Meanwhile, Pat’s unhappily-married pals (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) try setting him up with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who’s had episodes of her own (mostly involving sex with strangers) but is now finding balance in her life through ballroom dancing.

You may guess that Pat and Tiffany, each spinning around in their own strange orbits, come together on the dance floor, but their pas de deux is just one of many things going on in “Silver Linings Playbook,” which also finds room for Dash Mihok’s grumpy local cop (whose sole responsibility seems to be turning up whenever Pat is having some kind of public meltdown) and Tucker as Pat’s fellow inmate with a talent for getting over the wall.

Russell pitches the action at a manic, screwball pace, and the cast is more than up to the task, with Cooper and Lawrence attracting and repelling each other with equal dynamism and talented supporting players making these shouting, unhappy characters into memorable eccentrics.

(Ortiz’s slow burn as a henpecked husband is particularly potent.)

A less talented and less heartfelt filmmaker would have reduced this crew to easily digestible types, shied away from their darker behavior and gone for sitcom-level laughs and learning, but Russell is too smart for such lazy obstructions. He’s crafted a wonderfully odd ode to dysfunctional people trying to make their way in the world, and he knows that their journey would mean nothing without a few black clouds along the way.


The students and teachers at the elite English girl’s boarding school in Cracks appear non-disabled upon first blush, but the movie quickly shows itself to be an exploration of fissures in their respective facades. Aristocratic Spanish girl Fiamma, the daughter of a countess, has recently been exiled to the school by her parents for carrying on with a boy (and a commoner to boot). Upon arrival, she is expected to join the non-competitive dive team headed by the seemingly liberated Miss G, and follow the strict rules of the group of girls who idolize their teacher.

In all areas Fiamma inspires jealousy, but the first sign that Fiamma is destined to be the victim of disability-related bullying comes when she has an asthma attack and pulls out a primitive inhaler. “Have you no courage?” Miss G admonishes her. Fiamma completes her dive, but struggles with her breathing while climbing out of the water. In a show of magnanimity, Miss G lets her take the rest of the day off, exacerbating the jealousy of her fellow students (particularly former favorite Di). Fiamma sensibly tries to avoid diving when it’s too cold (cold air being a specific trigger for asthma) or she’s feeling unwell, but Miss G and the girls pressure her into it most of the time.

But if Fiamma’s hidden disability comes to the attention of her peers occasionally, the flamboyant Miss G’s obsessive tendencies and social anxiety is barely detectable. Only Fiamma sees through her lies about her travel adventures, and realizes that Miss G pays her so much unwanted attention because she, even at a young age, has already lived the life Miss G can only wish for. Fiamma points out some of her flaws to Di, who gradually begins to warm up to her.

The tension between the two comes to a head when Miss G sexually assaults a drunk and unconscious Fiamma, and then convinces Di and her gang of girls that Fiamma is out to slander her and get her fired. The girls ambush Fiamma, causing a severe asthma attack and sending them running for the nearest responsible adult. Miss G is first on the scene; she cruelly withholds her asthma medication, and calmly watches her die.

Di witnesses Fiamma’s death but is too scared to intervene. Later, she convinces the other girls that Miss G is not the person they believed her to be, and Miss G is fired. She retreats to a prison of her own design, too frightened to leave the small town that is the only place she’s ever been while Di makes her escape.

The Social Network

In The Social Network, a cinematic adaptation of the book ‘The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal‘, the actor who plays FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg portrays the character with certain characteristics which are suggestive of Asperger’s Syndrome and/or autism spectrum disorders. On many occasions, Zuckerberg’s character is shown as having a flat affect (especially if he is asked something while concentrating on his work at the computer), and in one instance, he engages in hand motions similar to those exhibited by Temple Grandin.

However, in an early scene of the movie, his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend has other ideas about what ails him. In a tete-a-tete at a restaurant, when his conversation was dominated by his fixation on how he wanted to get into a one of Harvard’s influential clubs, and how he would go about “gaming” the process, she speculates that he might be “OCD”, and would benefit from medication. Later on, she comes up with a more colorful assessment of his character: he must have some exceptional flexibility, in order to get his “head up his ass”.

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a professor of child psychology at California State U, had this assessment:

Jesse Eisenberg’s character qualifies as showing signs of many DSM-IV psychiatric conditions including adult antisocial personality disorder, Asperger’s, ADHD, and narcissistic personality disorder. But on the other hand, he defined a socially connected world where those behaviors are acceptable or at least accepted. If you examine our behavior behind the screen we feel comfortable acting in any way we can because nobody can see us and we have some sense of safety in that we can’t see them. We can’t see them crying, or feeling hurt. So Eisenberg’s behavior is actually acceptable online but unacceptable in person and is precisely what we’re seeing exhibited now behind one of the many screens countless hours each day.”

It is initially made to seem that certain extremely negative characteristics, including a conspicuous coldness to others including those who are supposed to have the status of friends, are inherent personality defects on the part of Zuckerberg.

His separateness from the general population is even emphasized by what must be the producers’ and scriptwriters’ decision to riff on or to rip off A Beautiful Mind, by having him write the algorithm for the functionality of FaceBook in paint marker on his dorm room windowpane. Zuckerberg’s social milieu, however, can hardly be said to be stocked with eusocial examples for him to emulate. Many of his peers who are ostensibly “normal” may have different daily conduct, but in many cases, it could hardly be called “better”. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that a number of individuals, both co-founders and rivals, spend a great deal of time engaged in manipulating and sabotaging others for material and psychic gain. Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) at one point seems to be exerting undue influence over Zuckerberg in the newly-formed corporation and this contributes to a falling out with Zuckerberg’s former best (and only) friend, Edwardo.

The Winklevoss twins, in an effort to get Zuckerberg punished by the official power of the university, alleging that Zuckerberg had violated the institution’s honor code while working on the similar software development project they had contracted, The Harvard Connection, by stealing their idea and turning it into facebook, go to the then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers (also reputedly an Aspie) who tells them to simply “find another idea”.

Clinging desperately to that idea, having attached a disproportionate amount of potential profit to it, every one of the principals ends up suing everybody else, resulting in a legal, social, and financial morass which takes a team of lawyers a lot of time around a conference table to sort out. Zuckerman ends up learning remorse and regret for the damage done to relationships he had perhaps taken for granted, turning to a female lawyer for advice and support, and saying something genuinely indicative of caring to her.

Since we are not privy to the real Zuckerberg’s medical records, the audience is left to ask… Aspie or Asshole?

As Good As It Gets

The title of this picture, “As Good As It Gets” comes from lead character author Melvin Udall’s complaint to his psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with OCD. “Maybe this is as good as it gets” he told his psychiatrist, referring to his ability to function in the world and his lack of compliance with the standard professional boundaries the psychiatrist had set.

If I were his psychiatrist, I might have diagnosed the fictional Melvin Udall with a personality disorder as well. Most people would say he was a misanthrope, and from the unkind and sexually charged insults he uses on his openly gay neighbor, he initially seems to be a homophobe as well. Upon further encounters with other people of various races, genders, and walks of life, it would seem that he is an equal-opportunity hater, like Archie Bunker. However, he is wittier, “smoother”, savvyier, and more “in your face”, than the likes of Archie. Jack Nicholson portrays characters like this so well and so often that you have to wonder where the “actor” ends and the real man begins.

The perhaps unrealistic premise is that this man, who is set in his ways and seemingly hostile to those who are different from him, changes his attitude when his gay neighbor gets seriously beaten by a gang of burglars and needs financial help and housing when medical expenses bankrupt him. Udall takes in Simon’s dog, which he previously  disdained and maltreated, while Simon recuperates in the hospital and later returns to his apartment in a wheelchair.  A bit later, having gotten to know Simon and see his humanity, he takes in Simon in his spare room as well.

Another crisis, “his” waitress being absent from her job because her kid constantly gets sick and needs multiple trips to the emergency room, precipitates more relationship-building. It starts with sending a doctor to find out about the boy’s ailments and give him a full allergy test, prompted by “enlightened self-interest”. He is later able to move further towards genuinely unselfish behavior, but there are stops and starts and backtracking on the way.

The OCD this character exhibits is portrayed in the movie as obvious but not serious habits on the part of the protagonist, such as stockpiling bars of glycerine soap in his medicine cabinet, bringing plastic silverware to the restaurant he habitually patronizes, and taking pains to avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. The commentary track on the DVD to the movie revealed that they were going to show Jack Nicholson’s character engaged in some other OCD-indicative behaviors during some scenes in the movie in which they didn’t in the final cut. It was explained that the decision to change the original portrayal in this instance was to make the behaviors more minimal as the story went on.

The premise is that he gradually loses OCD compulsions as he becomes more involved in the emotional lives of the people he is in contact with, when he is put in circumstances where he ends up getting to know them personally, instead of just superficially. When Nicholson’s character finds a genuine ability to care for others and to successfully establish a relationship with a woman, his OCD behaviors gradually disappear. Whether or not this is actually a successful means to ameliorate OCD which cannot be found in a pill or a therapist’s office, I don’t know, but it makes for a very heartwarming and optimistic story.