On paper, a manic episode can read like a tantrum. A few hours before dawn, Pat Solitano, a man in his 30s, wants his wedding video. He could describe it frame for frame, but he will turn his parents’ house upside down, waking them and the rest of the neighborhood up until it surfaces. Move in a little closer, though, and you’ll find that video in Pat’s mind, enclosed along with his wedding song, Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” in a safe of infinitely layered neuroses. The tokens are insignificant next to his inability to stop returning to them through a narrow, obsessive, and unproductive focus on Nikki, his Cthulhu-like wife.
What Pat (Bradley Cooper) wants is to find room in the safe where nobody will bother him again. He thinks Nikki will take him back –despite an eight-month stint at a mental hospital– and is desensitized by her memory, an expert ignorer of how her absence has crushed him. She is his family and his friends, and all the strangers staring back at him for self-assurance that he hasn’t somehow given them bipolar disorder too. Pat is a hazard at their door, their real-life A&E.
Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is similarly stuck, except she’s a little farther along in her recovery from trauma. She already let her husband’s death astonish and confuse her as to where to turn for relief. Now, past denial, she seeks self-expansion, to struggle with a thought process foreign to her own.
The differences between Tiffany and Pat are rooted in perspective. She listens to the whole orchestra, while he only hears the keyboards. He sees individual strokes and can tell them apart without knowing what the painting represents, that is until he gets curious and asks her. Their reactions to the world are pre-planned, dull and unchanging. They don’t have to live in the moment or be critically aware of their behavior, because good and bad are already rigidly defined.
What I take from Silver Linings Playbook is that you’re not supposed to know how to live through a broken marriage or a death in the family before those things happen (and hopefully they don’t). No matter what you do, you’ll be caught reeling, and the part of your brain that works free of insights and logical thinking will tell you to simply grit your teeth and hold on. It’s that moment of desperation when the ground beneath your feet dissolves and you’ll want nothing more than to make sense of what’s happening, however bizarre a story it takes. Pat’s delusion, revealed in the therapy scene, represents the human reaction to hardship, one far less difficult than the appropriate reaction of letting adversity make its own sense that can overcome you and force you to understand it.
Then, with any luck, you’ll be exhausted, left with football, your friends and loved ones, a good book, sleeping in, small things that can carry a life if afforded space among other less tangible things, like dreams and inherited images of what a good life entails, that can get in the way of what’ll be there when it’s time to start over or try something new.
Silver Linings Playbook is uncomfortable to watch without the self-justifying comfort of reality television. It is a movie about the unavoidability of loss and stress and weakness, and how preparing for each one has more to do with experiencing them than browsing the Self-Help isles. Or to put it another way, a playbook is %99 guide, %1 Hail Mary. Its prescriptions can be broken at a moment’s notice if your players fail to get open or hold off the charging defensive line: in these cases, you are allowed to depend on whomever is available, even if you’re all that’s left. But if a long-ball prayer of a touchdown is the last hope for a win, your faith best reside in the familial faces crowding the end zone.
If we’re left with a moral, it’s an urgent, humble reminder that life is appeasable for those who realize that Hell is other people, but Heaven is too.