Depicting mental illness is tricky because so much exists beneath the surface. This visual medium can present grand moments, but it isn’t so easy to show the struggles going on inside the mind. Translating this internal conflict onto the big screen requires serious mettle to avoid turning it into a cliché. A prime example is Anne Hathaway’s Kym in Rachel Getting Married. She frequently says the wrong thing and makes everyone uncomfortable, yet we have to understand her pain in some fashion. It won’t be an easy journey, but there needs to be a connection or else the audience is lost. Director Jonathan Demme uses a naturalistic style that puts us right inside the house while Kym struggles to bond with her family. It’s a hopeful time for them because of Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) impending wedding, yet the return of her sister threatens to induce chaos. Kym has a serious amount of baggage, but she means well in her own way. Her drug addiction appears under control after years of rehab, yet the past demons remain at the forefront. Demme shows the tension that Kym brings to each family situation, and her role in a past tragedy just exacerbates the situation.
Similar challenges appear in the creation of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, one of 2012’s most acclaimed films. While Kym’s issues stem from one awful event, Pat (Bradley Cooper) suffers from bipolar disorder that is probably genetic. His father (Robert De Niro) has serious OCD issues that make this possibility seem greater. Pat also returns from a mental institution and is trying to get his life on track. He’s optimistic about reuniting with his wife Nikki (Brae Bee), but that seems very unlikely. After catching her having an affair, he violently beat her lover and was institutionalized. Few relationships can recover from this type of mess. His parents are supportive, but even they can only take so much of his erratic behavior. Waking them up in the middle of the night to find his wedding video and then striking his mom (Jacki Weaver) is hardly acceptable behavior. Pat searches for a “silver lining” (hence the title), but he’s still pushing back the realities of his illness. Positive thinking can only take you so far when the problems are biological. Kym’s family is doing a similar thing and pressing her to be “normal” for the wedding. Her father (Bill Irwin) maintains a happy demeanor and tries to avoid thinking of his son’s death. Each time Kym goes off the rails, it only reminds everyone of their painful history.
Adapting the novel from Matthew Quick, Russell found it difficult to balance the drama with the romance in Silver Linings Playbook. It’s heavy material yet ends with a dance competition. He’s channeling Cassavetes with the family drama but showing more hope. Pat’s salvation may arrive with the much-younger Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who lost her husband in a car accident. It’s an unconventional romance with ups and downs, yet it’s clear that she’s grounding him. Despite his insistence that Nikki will come back, the claim grows less convincing once the dance training begins. Cooper is 15 years older than Lawrence, yet it’s hardly noticeable. Lawrence won the Oscar for this part and shows a resilience that’s well beyond her 22 years. When Tiffany steps into the house and takes on everyone, it’s a magnetic scene that’s one of the best in the film. Russell’s hand-held cameras drop us right into the middle of the conflicts. The question is whether he can stick the landing and bring life to a surprisingly conventional finale. We’ve seen the final chase so often that it’s tiring to watch it play out again. Only the fine work from Cooper and Lawrence saves the day.
It’s surprising that Writer Jenny Lumet mostly avoids the romantic angle for Kym. The best man Kieran (Mather Zickel) is also a recovering addict, and they do hook up after recognizing this connection. There’s a chance to set up Kieran as a confidant who can guide Kym back to mental health. It’s such a relief to have Lumet (Sidney’s daughter) sidestep this obvious theme. She won’t let Kym off the hook that easily and puts her through the ringer all weekend. Much of the damage is self-inflicted, particularly when she makes an awful choice to apologize to her sister during the toasts at the rehearsal dinner. Kym believes in everything she’s saying, but the timing reveals a lack of self-awareness that’s come from years of struggles. When we learn her direct role in the tragedy, this damage makes sense and flips the attention back towards her sister. Rachel has every right to be angry at her sister for upstaging her wedding, but she isn’t seeing Kym’s pain. When they finally re-connect on the wedding day, the silence between them says more than any words could do. They’ve been sniping back and forth for several days, but neither has really heard the other talk. Taking the time to listen and break through all the bullshit is the only way they’ll ever connect and try to rebuild the relationship.
A similar moment of recognition happens for Pat, and it’s one of the best touches in the movie. His initial decision to train for the dance competition is a bargaining chip so Tiffany will pass his heartfelt letter to Nikki. There’s a remarkable moment when Pat recognizes that his wife’s response was actually written by Tiffany. The serene look on Cooper’s face is priceless, and that sense of calm sticks with Pat for the rest of the story. A lesser movie would pile on the misunderstandings and make things difficult, but it’s clear from this point that he’ll do anything for Tiffany. The volatile guy recognizes what she’s tried to do and achieves a focus that’s been missing for years. Cooper underplays this understanding so well that you could easily miss it. When Pat finally meets up with Nikki, we don’t hear the conversation but get what’s happening solely from Cooper’s expressions. Pat has finally moved on from a messy situation and is ready to stop fighting himself. His disorder is going to be around forever, but he’s trying to take control and isn’t blaming anyone else.
Both films end with a festive event that puts a positive spin on all the drama leading up to it. Rachel Getting Married is filled with turmoil right up until the wedding day, but it slips away once Rachel and Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) tie the knot. The party is ridiculous and nearly goes too far over the top with excess. The groom sings a Neil Young song during the ceremony, and Robyn Hitchcock (!) performs at the reception. This wedding party cost a serious amount of money, and Demme nearly undercuts the drama by going so far in the other direction. The saving grace is Hathaway’s work as Kym, who is clearly reeling from the fight the night before with her mom (Debra Winger). Everyone is having a blast, but she’s still a long way from strong mental health. When she returns to rehab the next morning, her faith is renewed but hardly out of the woods. This weekend sets the foundation for future growth, but there’s plenty to do for the family. Kym recognizes the challenges but seems content for the first time in the entire story.
Silver Linings Playbook provides an odd combination of unconventional human drama with a pretty standard structure. It’s a testament to Russell and the fine actors that it feels original while remaining tied to the formula. A silly dance to the White Stripes’ “Fell in a Love with the Girl” is a nice touch because it shows Pat and Tiffany really letting loose. Their happy ending is assured, and the misunderstanding that sends her fleeing the scene feels out of a lesser movie. Russell trusts the audience to follow the story but can’t help but get stuck in a tired device. The chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence keeps us engaged, and they find a way to sell even the typical scene. We’re rooting from them to succeed even when the plot sends them in predictable directions. The resolution is less daring than Demme’s choice, yet both don’t overstep the feeling that we’re just seeing the start of a recovery. Each story works because the characters are well-developed and played with confidence. That’s the true test of films that delve into the frailty of the human psyche.