Psychologists and other mental health professionals are touchy about how they are depicted in movies. So are doctors, police officers, and lawyers. Given the widespread influence of movies, any profession is naturally going to be invested in whether its members are portrayed positively and accurately. After all, misrepresentations could potentially lead to public relations problems. In the case of psychotherapy, it might mean that someone will not seek help because they have developed a negative perception of counseling. Or in the case of mental disorder, inaccurate depictions could increase the stigmatization of various kinds of difficulties and diagnoses.
However, as I point out in my book, The Psychology at the Movies, there is a danger in psychologists being too uptight and literal in commenting about Hollywood movies. Filmmakers are not in the same business as psychologists. Their job is to tell dramatic, compelling stories, and sometimes they distort reality in order to accomplish this task.
The Best Picture Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook is an excellent example of a film that is at once fairly accurate about a number of elements related to mental health, misleading about other elements, and yet ultimately true to its own artistic vision, benefiting the audience in the end.
In terms of accuracy, the thing that is most impressive about Silver Linings Playbook is the portrayal of a family system at the breaking point. The action begins when a son, Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from a psychiatric hospital after a court-ordered eight-month commitment because of a brutal assault on his wife’s lover. Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) is a pathologically superstitious father who is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles and gambling, and has some rage issues of his own. Dolores (Jacki Weaver) is a passive mother who nervously watches over the powder keg of family dynamics, hoping she can keep it from exploding with a forced smile and distracting food. The blow-up is inevitable, and one scene is particularly well done and realistic—after Dolores is accidentally elbowed by Pat, father, and son end up in a physical altercation while waking up the entire neighborhood.
On the other hand, judged from the standards of realism in regard to psychiatric diagnosis and mental health treatment, the film is not perfect. Pat is labeled as having bipolar disorder; this complicated diagnosis is controversial and confusing even among mental health professionals, and in Pat, it appears to manifest itself primarily in aggressive and violent outbursts. Similarly, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Pat’s love interest, has her compulsive and self-destructive promiscuity explained too simplistically (a compensation for the guilt she feels for inadvertently causing the death of her husband because of a declining interest in sex). Also, the film wraps up the pieces much too neatly, suggesting that Pat and Tiffany’s successful performance in a dance contest and their passionate love for each other are enough to diffuse all of the simmering psychological and interpersonal tensions. Finally, the portrayal of the therapist, Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) is problematic. He intentionally provokes Pat by playing a song that reminds him of a traumatic event, and later in the film, he completely abandons his professional role in favor of joining with Pat as a maniacal Eagles fan.
At this point in the analysis, I am guessing that many mental health professionals are nodding their head in agreement while many movie fans are thinking—“Come on. It’s just a movie.” In fact, it is “just” a romantic comedy that follows the narrative formula of such films almost exactly: two people meet and are attracted to each other; however, they have personal issues that prevent them from immediately starting a healthy relationship; through a series of poor decisions and misunderstandings, they learn and mature; eventually, they mutually declare their love for each other and live happily ever after.
The reason that Silver Linings Playbook is nominated for an Academy Award is not because of its innovative narrative but because of its unusual characters placed in an otherwise cliché narrative. The typical flaw of a rom-com hero is that he is “afraid of commitment” while the heroine is often “too needy.” In this movie, we have a hero who nearly killed a man and a heroine who had sex with everyone in her workplace. These behaviors are a challenge to the comfortable identification that often accompanies “normal” flaws. The movie’s primary virtue lies in how it manages to include such atypical characters in the hopeful dreams of the romantic comedy tradition (a tribute to the actors, who received Oscar nods in all four acting categories, and the quirky writer/director, David O. Russell, who is nominated in both categories).
One could criticize the conclusions of romantic comedies as simplistic, sending the unrealistic message that all problems are solved with a kiss. I’ve done it myself, in a grumpier mood. With Valentine’s Day approaching and confronted with a compelling movie like Silver Linings Playbook, I am less inclined to question the redeeming power of love. To criticize hope in any guise as unrealistic perhaps misunderstands the nature of hope. Admittedly, the object of hope is always about the future, and the future is always uncertain. But the feeling of hope can be sustaining in the present, and the troubled characters in Silver Linings Playbook offer an inclusive vision of that feeling that is that much more universal and powerful.
Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available here.