Affording as it does unaccustomed glimpses of realities alternate to what we regard as the normal world, mental illness has served as a bottomless well for stories, both dramatic and comedic, since time immemorial. In some early human cultures, madmen were seen as possessed by demons; in others, as shamans enraptured by the gods. And in the centuries since, they have become convenient objects of mockery.
Nowadays, of course, it’s not so easy to pigeonhole mentally ill people, because we’ve been having our consciousnesses raised. I doubt that there’s a person reading this who doesn’t have someone within his or her own family or close circle of friends who has struggled with some form of mental illness. It’s one of the last frontiers where legal discrimination and social contempt are still regarded as (marginally) acceptable.
Commendably, a lot of people are working very hard to lift the stigma from mental illness. So how does present-day Hollywood cope with this gradually changing perception? Some filmmakers have stuck a toe into these dicey waters and come up with something that really works, addressing the issue of mental illness without stereotyping or trivializing its sufferers overmuch. Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind are a couple good examples. Usually such efforts are dramas; comedy about mental illness still languishes in the realm of the Politically Incorrect.
So David O. Russell deserves big props for the risk that he has taken in adapting Matthew Quick’s best-selling novel Silver Linings Playbook for the screen. It’s not perfect; what starts out seeming like it’s going to be a fairly serious (and sometimes scary) portrait of life with bipolar disorder quickly devolves into a rather frothy romantic comedy. But it’s an honorable go at being entertaining while making people whose brain chemistry periodically goes haywire seem like family, rather than the Other. And in portraying them as persons of value, not to be discarded into some institutional Limbo where we don’t have to deal with their aberrant behavior, it strikes a blow – in a necessarily simplistic cinematic way – against lingering social stigma.
What makes Silver Linings Playbook work so well is the excellent cast. Bradley Cooper, as Pat Solitano, the bipolar young man who has just come home from a mental hospital after having forfeited his wife, his job and his freedom in an episode of rage, soon makes the viewer forget that he is much too tall and too WASPy-looking to be the offspring of parents played (exceedingly well) by Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver. Cooper’s is a challenging role in that we have to keep rooting for Pat to succeed, even while we find his manic behaviors and refusal to take his meds off-putting, and his unattainable obsession with getting back together with his ex-wife absurdly naïve.