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Silver Linings Playbook, Film Criticism and Willpower

In his smug, dyspeptic review of David O. Russell’s movie Silver Linings Playbook, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody huffs that “without a word of religion in the script, [the film]… advocates a faith-based view of mental illness and, overall, of emotional redemption.” Brody has a whole seafood platter’s worth of bones to pick with this movie, but he particularly objects to the protagonist’s self-reliance:

First, the story challenges the medical “establishment” and the efficacy of medical science in bringing about results: Pat doesn’t take his medication because he doesn’t like how it makes him feel—and because it makes him gain weight, whereas he wants to be svelte and buff in order to win his wife back. His mental health depends (and guess where this is going in the story) on his ability to control his behavior through force of will and the ability to make emotional connections based on empathetic and mature choices (as if mental illness itself might not be an insurmountable obstacle to those connections and choices). The movie will be a hit with those who think that hyperactivity is just a failure of discipline and depression merely a bad attitude (to the tune of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” with its reference to “Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark”).

Wow, where to begin? Let’s start with accuracy. While it’s true that Pat stops taking his medication for the reasons Brody describes, he does eventually recognize that the pills can help stabilize his moods, and he starts taking them again as part of a multi-pronged approach to getting better.

Brody implies that any film depicting a bipolar person’s healthy use of willpower and empathetic connections to manage their well-being is mindlessly unrealistic. He bridles at the way the film questions psychiatric medicine’s efficacy, as if any really credible story would show how people suffering from depression, if they truly want to get better, must depend entirely on what helicoptering psy-docs tell them to do.

But here again Brody’s characterization of the film is misleading. While Silver Linings Playbook might highlight some of psychiatry’s imperfections, it also shows how Pat’s therapist, Cliff, deftly guides him away from his self-deceptions and back towards the stable independence he’s lost.

The film does dramatize ways that mental illness can impede and imperil the sorts of emotional connections and mature choices Pat ultimately makes. Pat also makes some bad decisions along the way, puffing hard on pipe dreams of reuniting with his ex-wife, fantasies that blind him to the chance for true-blue passion with his new friend Tiffany. At first he even becomes violently unstable when his delusions are challenged.

But that’s not enough for Brody. He apparently wants a movie where mental illness is an insurmountable obstacle to adaptive relationships and decisions—where Pat keeps making reckless choices and never gets better. Or a movie where, if Pat does get better, he does so passively, by sitting on his ballooning ass and waiting for his luck to change:

If there were substance to the movie, it would respond to the question of whether character is destiny, or whether a person can change and still be himself, be true to himself—or whether, in fact, a current iteration of a person, broken and full of blame, may in fact be a false one, with the true and better self waiting to emerge from better circumstances.

Notice the rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which Brody wants to rob Pat of his agency, deny him an active role in his recovery. He says the film should explore the question of whether character is destiny, but then he denies character its essence: the individual’s autonomy. The better self simply “emerges,” perforce, from improved circumstances, as helpless to control his fate as a floppy kid being popped out of the womb.

These are pretty insulting insinuations for anyone who has struggled with mental illness. But given the trends of 20th and 21st-century social science, it’s understandable that Brody supports such a view.

In his 2011 book Flourish, Martin Seligman charts the ideological currents that have informed modern social science since its genesis as an enterprise designed to “demonstrate that environment, rather than character or heredity, is a better explanation of what people do.” In this calculus,

…individuals are no longer responsible for their actions, since the causes lie not in the person but in the situation. This means that…if you want to make a better world, you should alleviate the circumstances that produce bad actions rather than waste your time trying to change character.

Seligman contrasts the psychology-as-usual shaped by such ideas, “the psychology of victims and negative emotions and alienation and pathology and tragedy,” with his contrarian view:

Sometimes people are indeed victims, but…often people are responsible for their actions, and their untoward choices stem from their character. Responsibility and free will are necessary processes within positive psychology. If circumstances are to be blamed, the individual’s responsibility and will are minimized, if not eliminated. If, in contrast, the action emanates from character and choice, individual responsibility and free will are, at least in part, causes.

Richard Brody is right to prefer that narrative hinge on character as the pivot of destiny, but his bait-and-switch argument then makes environment the lone tune-caller. Character, robbed of free will, becomes merely a hapless, lollygagging hostage of circumstance.

Depression and mania, of course, can’t be controlled or defeated through force of will alone. As Allie Brosh explains with her characteristic insight and wit, “trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back. A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn’t going to work.”

But Silver Linings Playbook, contra Brody, really doesn’t contain any credulous message that depression is just a bit of mental grime that can be scrubbed away with attitudinal elbow grease. Only a pollyanna cowboy in the irons at his first rodeo would claim that unaided willpower can bootstrap you out of depression.  That doesn’t mean that willpower can never play any role at all in helping to you get—and stay—better. Self-regulation does play an important role in Pat’s scrabbling up to higher levels of self-awareness and stable maturity by the film’s end.

There’s an old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb: It takes just one, but the light bulb has to want to change. Pat has plenty of the requisite motivational wattage—he just takes a while to realize the ways he needs to change. At first his desire to get better is grounded in a misguided attachment to the past. He desperately wants to get back together with his ex-wife Nikki, and refuses to recognize how unlikely such a reunion is, and how inauspicious it would be even if it did happen. Most of his struggles result from his hanging on to these unwise motives for recovery.

Ultimately, however, Pat recognizes that his aspirations need some smart adjustment, that it’s not really reconciliation with Nikki that he needs. He can’t see how good Tiffany is for him until he relaxes his white-knuckled grip on that delusional goal.

SLP RunningHis desire to get back together with Nikki does have the practical value of motivating him to get better before he’s able to recognize how implausible his goal is. He spends his time running, reading, and training for the dance competition with Tiffany. Such disciplined activity is healthy for anyone, but especially salutary for people trying to overcome depression or keep it at bay. Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the research on exercise and depression won’t deny how regular workouts can support recovery and help prevent relapse.

There’d really be no more verisimilitude or substance in a story that showed someone like Pat just languishing in the hope that improved circumstances would somehow gestate his better self. (Kafka’s hunger artist tries that, and the strategy doesn’t work out so well for him—it’s a great story, but as cinema it would be deadly.)

It’s true that when depression’s at its worst, your tank’s empty, you haven’t got enough juice to fuel a matchbox car across a yard of track. In those troughs, waiting is sometimes all you can do, and it’s not a bad thing—they also serve who only veg out and wait.

Still, we’re not despairingly inert all the time—there’s ebb and flow to hope and strength. Many of us who struggle with depression do use willpower, with fitful success, to fight the disease and its effects. Recent research has shown that self-control is like a muscle that can be nourished and strengthened through exercise. Roy F. Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, thus argues that “acts of self-control can take the form of an inner resource striving to overcome the power of some … emotion, desire, habit, or other response.”

The Penn Resiliency Program’s findings dovetail with the work of Baumeister and others in showing how willpower and striving can help those in trouble, like Pat Solatano, recover from illness and lead happier, more complete lives. Seligman explains how important it is for contemporary psychology to recognize that “human beings are often, perhaps more often, drawn by the future than they are driven by the past, and so a science that measures and builds expectations, planning and conscious choice will be more potent than a science of habits, drives and circumstances.”

Silver Linings Playbook gives us a character who’s been through hell without surrendering to the devil, a guy not content to sit and wait for circumstances to improve, a dude who’s drawn by the future and propelled by his hunger for a better life. Here’s how Pat sums up his worldview:

This is what I believe to be true. This is what I learned in the hospital. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.

Okay, Arthur Schopenhauer he ain’t. Still, notice the nuance there—it’s a shot at a silver lining, not some cozening guarantee. At one point Pat loses heart and begins disparaging as “crazy, sad shit” the ideas and practices that have been helping him. Cliff reminds him, then, of what he’s been doing right:

This “crazy sad shit,” as you call it, made you a happier, calmer person with a beautiful positive philosophy of going outdoors, working out, and reading books.

SLP Running 2A lot of us have used similar tacks to help ourselves recover from depression, help ourselves become happier, calmer people. Audiences who appreciated this movie aren’t the bunch of born-yesterday boneheads Richard Brody would have you believe they are. Sure, the plot is a bit contrived, but not brainlessly so—it just mines the absurd and superstitious sides of human nature a little more deeply than most films. SLP is less straightforward realism than stylized dark (romantic) comedy infused with a spiky, hopeful fuck-you to the sniffy purveyors of pessimism. The characters are more substantive and compelling than Brody’s review indicates, and the story delivers its inspirational kick without recourse to mawkish overreach or saccharine cheerleading.

Does Silver Linings Playbook, as Brody contends, proffer a faith-based view of mental illness and emotional redemption? Yeah, it does—pretty emphatically. And what’s the faith this view is based on? Faith that life can have meaning again for someone who’s been lost in the bat-shit abyss. Faith that you can love again even after your heart’s been yanked through tangles of poison oak and barbed wire. Faith that you’ll scare up the strength and imagination to help yourself eventually, even if you can’t manage that right now. Faith that there’s a decent future drawing us, maybe even a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.

For my money, that’s a playbook that will take you pretty far down the field.

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9 Comments

  1. zhannee

    This was really insightful. Thanks!

    • (Author)

      Thanks, Zhanee. Glad you liked it.

  2. CopingMechanism

    Hello Bob,

    Do you have a contact email? (I can’t see one anywhere on this site, sorry in advance if I missed it…)

    • (Author)

      Hi Coping Mechanism,

      Sorry, I’m brand-new at this blogging thing. I’d forgotten to add that contact page. It’s up now–see the link in the main menu.

  3. Re:
    “philosophy of going outdoors, working out, and reading books” —
    How’s that a philosophy? Please show me clearly why it is, because I am no philosopher: I need the explanation.

    • (Author)

      Hi Kate,

      Thanks for the question. I’m not really a philosopher myself, but I think Cliff is using the word “philosophy” in a loose vernacular sense, to describe Pat’s outlook, his general way of thinking and behaving. It’s certainly not a philosophy in the sense of, say, Neoplatonism or epistemology.

      • All right, then … Having Asoerger’s, I don’t reliably “get” such things implicitly. (By the way, there is a VERY high correlation between Asperger’s and depression, between Asperger’s and suicide, and between Asperger’s and being unbenefited by variouspsychological/psychiatric interventions that generally work well for depressive non-Aspies. Somebody should research this more, with an eye to treatments, but this hasn’t happened yet.)

        • (Author)

          Thanks for that explanation, Kate. I know a little about Asperger’s, not a lot, but I’ve heard of the Asperger’s/depression correlation. Have you read Penelope Trunk’s blog? She’s an Aspie and has some very interesting things to say about living and working with Asperger’s.

          • Thanks! I wasn’t familiar with Ms. Trunk’s blog, so I’ll go there and start reading.

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