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My Take on ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ as a Woman With Bipolar Disorder

Three times the charm? Maybe.

I have been overly critical in the past of the film “Silver Linings Playbook.” I always knew it to be a good movie. However, the reasons for me thinking it was a good movie had nothing to do with the accuracy, which I felt the film lacked. When I watched the movie the first time, it played out as a good film with a good script, and that was all. All I gathered about the two main characters, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, were that they had bipolar disorder, but everything else about the movie seemed foggy not long after I watched it.

Granted, the movie was released the year I had my third breakdown. I can’t even be sure if I watched the film before or after my mental break. So depending on my mental status, my opinion of the film at the time might have been affected.

Two or three year later, I watched it again. I wanted to understand that which I did not upon my first viewing of the movie. My response? I thought the film underplayed the behavior, emotions and mentality of a person struggling with bipolar disorder. I felt Bradley Cooper’s character’s antics and excitability (ever present in almost every scene of the film) were more characteristic of a man with quirks and anger issues. I couldn’t possibly see how the audience could understand the severity of a person with manic depression if Cooper’s actions were merely written off as the actions of a quirky man who threw temper tantrums.

I felt Hollywood ripped us off and deprived the world of a great opportunity to present mental illness in such a way that people could, if not relate to, at least witness the travesties a person with mental illness has dealt with. I thought they did such a disservice to the mental health community by presenting bipolar disorder in such a comedic light.

Yes, there were scenes of drama, but much of Bradley Cooper’s antics were comical. You couldn’t help but crack a smile a little. I charged the writers and directors with abandonment of responsibility, with superficiality and an inability to give mental illness the proper platform it deserved. Here was their chance to present to the world what bipolar disorder looked like and felt like, and they blew it.

Then, I watched the movie a third time. It played on TNT last night. I wanted to watch it again, from beginning to end, to see if maybe I had missed something. Maybe I was being too critical and too overcharged with emotion to see with my own eyes what was really taking place on screen. Basically, I wanted to give “Silver Linings Playbook” another chance. A third chance, if you will.

I discovered something. Now while the average human might not understand all that is going on in the movie before them, if he or she could differentiate between someone naturally brimming with quirks and anger issues and a person who is quirky and temperamental as a result of their mental illness? Then, Hollywood will have succeeded.

Because in this movie, Bradley Cooper is a perfect example of a person with bipolar disorder (much more high-functioning than many I might add). He is not the most severe case of a person with bipolar disorder, which I think turned me off the second time I watched the film. Because I wanted the audience to see how brutal the disease can be. I wanted them to experience the trauma and the turmoil. I wanted the movie to shove it in our faces. At certain points in the film, they did.

For example, when Bradley Cooper’s character Pat starts freaking out because he cannot find his wedding video and he goes into this wild outburst, tugging at his hair, circling the room and shouting that he can’t find the wedding video. He is so loud he wakes up the neighbors. He accidentally strikes his mom in the face, and someone calls the cops on him. Lucky for Cooper, the cop only told him to quiet down. He didn’t drag him back to the mental clinic.

When Cooper’s wedding song (the song that played when he found his wife in the shower with another man) is playing when Cooper arrives at his therapy session, he asks the receptionist, “Is that really playing?” To which she responds, “We sometimes play music.” Bradley Cooper gets so infuriated, thinking for certain they are playing a cruel joke on him (oh, I’ve so been there), freaks out and rips the bookshelf off the wall.

I could relate to this particular part in this film because it illustrates the paranoia and delusion people with bipolar disorder can experience with they are in a manic or hypomanic state. Immediately, this scene reminded me of the years 2001 and 2002 when I thought the U.S. government was trying to brainwash everyone in America through the use of media, dubbing VHS tapes and changing the words in songs, movies and television scripts.

A particular song would come up and I’d think, “No! They’re trying to get to me. They’re messing with my head. Argh! I know they are.” I thought they were trying to trick me. A song like that would be called a “trigger.” It is an outside entity that causes something inside of you to connect to an old emotion or trauma and almost instantaneously bring back all previous emotions, fears and doubts you felt when that entity first caused the trauma.

Bradley Cooper is finally called into the doctor’s office and questions the therapist, “Why would you do that?” The doctor responds, “I am sorry. I had to see if (the song) was still a trigger.”

Stop. I do not think a therapist would not do that, which is one thing that really bothered me about this film. A therapist would not stealthily plan to have this song playing the moment you came into the office to see if it still “triggered” you. For one, it’s unfair to you. When you’re at the therapist’s office, your guard is up. Yet, you are still extremely vulnerable. Two, psychiatrists don’t try to trick their patients! Why? Why would they do that? So counterproductive. Cruel, even.

If Bradley Cooper came into the doctor’s office, and the doctor asks, “Can I play you this song, and you can tell me how it makes you feel or if it still has an effect on you?” Then, you give him the OK to do so? Then, yes. Play it, but to play the song when he first arrives to test him? No. I don’t think so. Sorry, Hollywood. Gotta ding you for that one.

However, I get the point you are trying to make. People with bipolar disorder can lose it if they hear a song that elicits a deep emotion or memory. I don’t physically lose it, but I find myself drowning with every word and every line redrawing incidents from my past. Bringing up feelings that left my mind reeling from anxiety.

There are a lot of little clues found in Cooper’s behavior and even in his own words that there is something off about him. Not the “off” that most people are familiar with, but rather “off” as he is mentally unstable. However, they are hard to notice if you don’t know what it means to be bipolar. These are clues I may not have even picked up on the first or second time I watched the film.

For example, when the cop comes to Cooper’s parents’ house after his loud outburst and Cooper and Robert De Niro (who plays his father) are fighting. The cop tells Cooper, “I’m going to have to write this up.” Bradley turns sadly, distraught and desperate. “No, don’t write this up!” he begs the policeman. “Nikki can’t see it!”

He repeats this several times. This is a clue to the clarity that Cooper lacks in this scene. The cop writing the incident up has nothing to do with Nikki (his wife). It’s highly improbable his wife would even see the report. One, the police wouldn’t hand it over to her. Two, there’s really no way she’d even know it would exist. Hence, there’s no reason for her to go down to the police station to ask for it.

Yet, Bradley Cooper is so much in his own world, his own reality, that he thinks everything is tied to Nikki. Someway, somehow, that police report is going to get into her hands. She is going to read it, and she is going to despise him for it. Bradley Cooper’s belief that he and his wife are still very much in love, that he only has to prove himself to her and they will be together again (despite the fact that his own wife has placed a restraining order against him and everyone in town is telling him to stay away from her) is a symbol of Cooper’s delusional reality, a reality perpetually goaded on by the presence of his illness.

His illness magnifies his obsession by 20 times. At times, he even manages to reel you, the audience, in. We are kept guessing if Jennifer Lawrence really gave Nikki the letter, and when Bradley Cooper was basically crying to the cop after the argument, “Don’t write this up! She’s going to see it!” for a moment, we empathize with him. That is, until we realize, wait. How the hell is she even going to see that police report?

For Jennifer Lawrence’s character, though she has bipolar disorder as well, it isn’t as obvious that she has a mental illness. Sure, she had a time after her husband’s death when she slept with a lot of men and wore black like a goth widow, but she is a high-functioning person with bipolar disorder, if I ever saw one. She is distinctly aware of her illness and how to manage it as well. When she shows Cooper her dance “studio,” she explains she is not that great of a dancer but it’s therapeutic and good for her. She seems of sound mind.

Both Cooper and Lawrence don’t take their meds (at least for Cooper, not until later on in the film). Lawrence can handle this. Cooper cannot, as demonstrated through his outbursts and erratic behavior. One thing I will say about Lawrence is she hardly expressed any emotion. Her face rarely wore a grin. It was either sulky, moody or expressionless. This could be attributed to the recent death of her husband, but no one really knows. It is an interesting contrast shown between the two main characters.

Now, that I’ve bored you to death, I guess I can return to my main point. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a movie that accurately depicts people with bipolar disorder. Through Cooper’s erratic, illogical and obsessive behavior, we are given a glimpse into how a person with bipolar disorder thinks.

One major hang up I still have with the movie is a lot of what happens in the film can be written off as quirky or angry charades. Yet, then again, life works in a similar fashion. One can mistake manic behavior for an odd guy with issues. He might act out at times, but that’s what he does. It can be hard to identify a person with bipolar disorder. This is mainly because most people have no idea what bipolar disorder is, and millions don’t get treated for it.

I think this film was a laudable attempt of Hollywood to step into the life of someone who has bipolar disorder. It wasn’t always clear cut. At times the audience was kept in the dark along with Bradley Cooper, but they really did to do justice to people with mental illness.

I still don’t like that it was a comedy. I feel like it took away from some of the gravity of the epidemic. However, someone once told me they made it that way so the film and the message were more accessible to people. I guess I can understand that.

I didn’t understand the intent of the writer of “Silver Linings Playbook” at first. Were they merely using mental illness as a vehicle to bring comedy onto the scene? Or did they really want people to see mental illness was no laughing matter, in spite of all the comedy? Well, I don’t know how serious the intentions of the writers and directors of the movie were, but I really do feel, in whatever magnitude, they did want people to recognize and learn what it means to live with bipolar disorder.

I do, however, feel they were asking a lot of the audience with this film. Many times, you really have to pay extra special attention to certain spots to find the meaning. You can’t help but laugh away a lot at Bradley Cooper’s antics and in the process risk losing the significance of what he is saying or doing. OK, so maybe Hollywood didn’t get all of it right, but they were headed in the right direction.

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Image via “Silver Linings Playbook” Facebook page.