Movies about mental illness are a favorite of the Oscars. The nominees are often serious affairs with sad endings and a key point: it sucks to have a mental illness. Underlying that key point is the idea that having a mental illness creates an outsider status of not being normal where one lacks access to the goodies inherent in the American Dream. This year’s multi-nominated Silver Linings Playbook has all that, and it’s a comedy to boot.
However, the usual key point (that it sucks to have a mental illness and you’re an outsider if you do), is shown in ways guaranteed to make the normals feel uncomfortable, including lots of yelling and messy arguments filled with old wounds and family dynamics. “Drama,” as the kids say.
If you haven’t gotten yourself to a theater to watch, here’s the gist: Pat is the youngest son of a working class Philly family just moved back home after 8 months living in a mental institution. It turns out that he was living with undiagnosed bipolar disease and was institutionalized for behaving violently, resulting in the loss of his job, the loss of his fancy house and estrangement from his classy wife Nikki, who has a restraining order against him. His older brother Jake is a successful lawyer about to make partner. Their dad, Pat Sr., has just lost his job and pension and is working in the ‘informal economy’, and mom Dolores is there holding them all together, as many moms do in working class families.
The tag line for the film — “Life doesn’t always go according to plan” — says it all, because it’s true. To have a mental illness is to experience a loss of status; for a working class guy like Pat, that means starting over from scratch. By court order, Pat has to move in with his parents, has to take his pills and see his therapist, and is assigned a local cop who shows up at the door every time there’s an outburst. And there are several outbursts, because starting over is rough for Pat. Pat knows what he has lost and he wants to get it back; as he says repeatedly, “I want Nikki back.”
Nikki comes to symbolize the benefits of climbing. Before his stint in the institution Pat was an overweight history geek, a high school sub who married one of the golden girls and was living in a big house with nice things (the film shows their house…lots of dark wood and professional landscaping). But he loses it all because he’s bipolar, a “loser” in the words of Pat Sr., and an embarrassment to his successful brother who didn’t have time to visit him in the institution.
Early in the film Pat meets Tiffany (great working class name) at his friend Ronnie’s house. Ronnie is climbing too, redoing rooms in his house and meeting the demands of his icy blond, climber wife. (This character is a stand-in for my sister-in-law). Ronnie shares with Pat that he isn’t happy, is in fact stressed out and sneaking off to listen to Metallica in the garage to blow off steam. I’ve said this before: mobility is traumatic and climbing costs. The American Dream isn’t free, darlings.
Tiffany is the opposite of Nikki, an emotionally struggling young widow with a penchant for heavy eyeliner, cussing, and telling the absolute truth (a familiar working class character, not Goth/punk as the media describes her). Tiffany comes to symbolize Pat’s redemption, an opportunity to accept life as it is, as messy as it is. She challenges him to forgive himself and to move forward in spite of the damage; and she gives him proper working-class shit for wallowing in it, calling him “crazy” to his face and suggesting, “We’re not liars like they are.”
And what are “they” lying about? If you’re the kind of working class person I am (and maybe you’re not), it’s the idea that happiness can be bought or that a high-status life creates anything but more stress. Being poor is tough, poor and crazy tougher (trust me), but there’s a dignity to it, a feeling that choosing family and community and love is happiness; no matter what, you are never an outsider among family.
The lie is in the American Dream, the idea that happiness is guaranteed by economic and occupational success. It’s such baloney, but it’s reproduced insidiously. This film (in spite of its Hollywood ending) takes a risk to show that “normal” ain’t so great, and that messy is a helluva lot more real.