Cold, sharp rain enveloped my city on the February morning when I returned to the neighborhood Loew’s to see Silver Linings Playbook for the second time.
I love attending the first show of the day. Now that I’m a senior, I no longer need the price break; there’s something about the people, whose sparse presence affords me a sense of community while I luxuriate in the near isolation of a private screening. The audience seems to be there to see the film, seriously, not to make out or have a conversation; people turn their cellphones off before they are instructed to do so, and they eat their popcorn quietly, sipping their water thoughtfully so as not to obstruct their own ability to follow what’s going on on screen.
This day, however, perhaps owing to the nasty weather outside, things began uneasily. Sitting behind me was a young woman, clearly out of her comfort zone; she was wet, squirmy, audibly unhappy. Waiting for the previews to finish and the feature to begin, she complained to her companion, “Why is the sound up so loud? I don’t think I can stand it if they don’t turn it down. I came here to see a film, not to have my eardrums punctured.” I wondered why the sound bothered her too much. I read somewhere that hyper-sensitivity to sound is a sign of mental illness. I tried not to turn around to look at her.
When the film began, I heard the girl sigh mournfully, her breath heavy with equal portions of aggravation and passion. “I thought this was going to be funny,” she complained. “When will it get funny?”
Then, during most excruciating moment of the film, when Patrick Solitano (Bradley Cooper) accidently slugs his mother (Jackie Weaver) and is attacked by his protective father (Robert DeNiro), the voice from behind me wailed softly, “I need to leave. This is too painful to watch.”
I no longer thought the speaker aberrant and began to wonder how many others in the theater were experiencing the same level of discomfort. Promoted as a comedy in the vein of a slightly more mature Judd Apatow kind of project, the film must shock people who settle into their seats and find themselves bombarded with the painful realities of familial dysfunction. Most of us are at least a little put off. Who among us has not lived through moments like the most disturbing ones in the film?
The Cooper character is identified as insane. He has bipolar disorder, and others treat him as though he were contagious, distrusting his pronouncements, which, to be sure, are proclaimed, as he admits, “without a filter.” They constantly instruct him to take his meds, meds he detests because they make him lose focus. But look around him. Is he honestly the craziest person in the group? Ever?
When I was a kid, I had a relative who was hospitalized for depression. She underwent shock treatments, was sequestered for months at a time in various institutions; then she was treated like a looney, derided and mistrusted by her nearest and dearest. She had children, and it was particularly difficult for them, as they were left alone in a gossipy world without her protection.
I often wondered what she could possibly have done that got her put away. Was it any less “normal” than the fights my father and I would have — physical fights, I’ll have you know — over whether I would go to church or what I would teach my sisters about sex? Like Cooper, my relative was surrounded by a tribe of entirely unhinged personalities, yet she was the one who wore the scarlet I on her forehead.
When my relation was finally released from her incarceration, she was expected to take all manner of drugs, mostly the kind that made her drool and babble inchoate thoughts. It was 1968, and the world was turning upside down, yet when she lost herself to uncontrollable weeping over the death of Bobby Kennedy, her doctors upped the dosage on her soporifics. As if she were out of whack in a sensible world. Meanwhile, I was running amuck pretending to myself that I was gainfully engaged in a (choose one) protest movement when all I was doing was drowning my fear in sex and cigarettes. Who among us was sane?
What is the nature of sanity? What constitutes successful coping? In Silver Linings Playbook, the “sick” one tries to resolve the conflicts around him, to soothe the raging beasts who founder without ballast. He counsels his best friend (John Ortiz) to fix his marriage and lose his destructive anger; he responds to his brother’s condescending attempt to make conversation by offering an embrace and saying, “I have nothing but love for you.” He makes a futile effort to stop the tailgating frenzy that erupts when some of his theoretically rational compadres can’t control their urge to drink, fight and spew racial epithets. All the while they are calling him the cuckoo, the wacko, the non compis mentis.
His fellow nut case Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose embarrassed family attempts to keep her hidden from the rest of the world, solves the worst crises as they arise and puts broken Pat back together again while her entirely conventional sister is coming apart at every seam.
On the way out of the theater, I strained to hear what my neighbor would have to say. I wondered, since she had entirely quieted down and had seemed to be engaged in the film, what she would think.
“I hated the first part of it,” she was saying as I slowly pulled my coat on and feigned looking for lost items of clothing. “He just made me feel so empty. I’m like that.”
The woman she was with muttered something I couldn’t hear, and they walked backward out of the theater, watching the credits, as I always do. “I feel insane because I want to do and say what’s right, and it just gets so mixed up so much of the time. And the world is so distorted. How can anyone be sane?”
Just like the rest of us, I thought as I turned to take my place at the back of the rest room line. The assembled women were quiet. I wished I knew how many of them felt what that young woman had articulated.
I feel it every day. Never more so than when I try to make sense of the news.
Two months ago, a young man named Adam Lanza took a bushmaster, an AR-15 automatic rifle and enough rounds to eliminate a large platoon of combatants into an elementary school. There he gunned down twenty-six peaceful, harmless innocents. The papers said he was insane, that he was being treated for emotional and mental disorders. Yet it was his mother who owned the weaponry, stockpiled the armory in her home and then left it entirely accessible to her son. Was she sane? Really?
Ultimately, Pat Solitano was lucky. He was sent to the hospital by the law as a punishment for beating up his (theoretically reasonable) wife’s lover after he discovered them together in his home shower. He got good care, found a very helpful doctor (Anupam Kher), and he learned strategies and skills with which to cope. Most of us have to pay for our treatment, and it’s very expensive.
That Adam Lanza’s mother, I, the young woman behind me, so many others probably need the kind of firm and gentle guidance Solitano gets from his Dr. Patel is a given. But most of us cannot afford it, and health insurances are loathe to provide the needed coverage. Besides, a good doctor is often very hard to find.
Which means that the vast majority of us are out there, swiping at stationary windmills, shouting at the moon, jostling one another with angry stares in subways and grocery stores, groping for inner peace. It’s a problem. A real problem. One that needs to be dealt with in a big way.
There is nothing cute or dismiss-able about David O. Russell’s brilliant Silver Linings Playbook. It is a very real statement on how we view our fellow human beings, how we treat one another, how we drive one another crazy.
And it’s been effective. Even Joe Biden and Barak Obama are initiating dialogue by citing the film. But that’s only a start. We all should be doing more than talking about it. We should be studying it, and we should be discussing what we can do to fix what is shattered and yet preserve what ain’t broke. We should be insisting that the Nancy Lanzas get help right alongside their messed up kids. We should be fighting for improved mental health care coverage and non-drug interventions. Instead of stigmatizing people with emotional and mental disease and disorders, we should be standing with them, insisting they are more like us than different. We need to recognize that it’s a crazy world we inhabit; loving one another is our best defense.
We must find ways to eliminate the desire to act out our anger, to employ guns to murder and create. There are alternatives. We will support them.
The last thing I heard my young neighbor say as she grabbed onto the revolving door to leave the theater and braced herself to meet the pelting sleet was, “It’s growing on me now. I’m really glad I saw this movie. You know? It was really good, really true. Don’t you think? She pulled her hood up over her ears. “It’s nice to know it’s not just me.”