Ask a Psychiatrist: How Does Silver Linings Playbook Handle Mental Illness?
By Gwynne Watkins
It’s to be expected that one (or both) of a romantic comedy’s protagonists will go a little crazy in some way. Silver Linings Playbook takes things a step further: Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat, is newly released from a mental hospital, and his romantic foil Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is battling her own demons. Neither, however, has the typical Hollywood version of mental illness, i.e. “My second personality is a prostitute with a Cockney accent!”
Pat’s bipolar disorder and Tiffany’s unnamed condition manifest themselves in ways that are realistically, even heartbreakingly mundane; Tiffany texts relative strangers for booty calls when she gets depressed, and Pat channels his mania into long jogs and rants about Hemingway. Yet the film has generated controversy among some reviewers about its portrayal of mental illness. Do the characters get off too easily, their symptoms falling by the wayside as soon as they find one another? Does the film imply that Pat’s medication was doing him more harm than good? Seeking a professional opinion, Vulture consulted with Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman. He loved the film.
We know that Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, has been on meds, but we don’t actually get a diagnosis. What was your take on her from a psychiatric perspective?
It’s hard not to see that character and wonder a little about borderline personality disorder for her. I think we’re probably supposed to think that, and then we’re supposed to feel bad about thinking that after we hear her history — which is silly, because people are allowed to have horrible histories and people are allowed to have borderline personality disorder, and there’s nothing wrong with either of those things.
So she’s had a significant response to a pretty awful trauma, the death of her husband. But she wasn’t doing well even before then, because we know she said, “Look, I can barely take care of myself.” And we don’t know whether those medications she talked about being on actually predated or came after that trauma. We can make the assumption that there’s depression, because someone put her on Effexor, which is an antidepressant. But you can have both: You can have depression and borderline personality disorder. I guess I’d be most comfortable just saying: She’s not doing well.
So her symptoms seem plausible: the promiscuity, the mood swings, the lying.
Oh yeah. What was frustrating to me as a watcher of the movie is, since she’s basically a foil for Pat’s character development, you don’t see her develop a whole lot. I think her life’s more complicated than she’s leading on. So she’s not out of the woods yet. I’d actually worry a little bit more about her than about him.