Self-Improvement vs. Self-Absorption: A Look at “Silver Linings Playbook”

Self-Improvement vs. Self-Absorption: A Look at “Silver Linings Playbook” February 26, 2013

If you want to find happiness and self-fulfillment, you need to focus on yourself. Think about ways to improve your personality, your character, the type of person you are – then act on them. At least that’s what the world usually tells you.

The Academy Award-nominated movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” on the other hand, presents a more complex solution – a solution that also involves the exact opposite advice.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a husband who wound up in a mental institution for eight months after he beat up and nearly killed the man with whom his wife, Nikki, was having an affair. The incident was prompted by more than just anger though. Pat suffered from bipolar disorder, OCD and severe mood swings which had never been diagnosed.

When Pat’s mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), gets him out of the institution to live at home with her and his father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), it’s obvious that Pat is still deeply troubled emotionally and mentally. To give himself direction to win back his wife, who has a restraining order against him, he keeps repeating the motto, “Excelsior,” meaning ‘ever upward.’ He also tells himself, “I’m gonna take all this negativity and I’m gonna use it as fuel, I’m gonna find a silver lining.”

Pat soon meets Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence in her Oscar-winning role), a young widow who is struggling with her own set of mental and emotional issues after her police officer husband is killed. Though they don’t exactly establish a friendship right away, the brokenness each of them brings to the table draws them to each other. They’re also alternately attracted and repelled by the fact that they each say anything that pops into their minds without applying the filter that most of us have in social situations. In other words, they’re a handful.

Because of the restraining order, Pat isn’t allowed to contact Nikki, so he asks Tiffany to get a letter to her explaining how he’s changed. In return, Tiffany wants a favor from Pat. In order to get her mind off her troubles, she’s signed up for a dancing competition and needs a partner. He reluctantly agrees and the two start training together, while also getting to know and rely on each other on a much deeper level.

Some people have praised “Silver Linings Playbook” for the way it presents the struggle against mental illness. I don’t have any personal knowledge of that topic, so I can’t say how accurate the movie’s treatment is.

What I did see, however, is that Pat’s mental and emotional state started improving more when he stripped the focus off himself and onto the goal of helping Tiffany.

For years, Pat’s focus had been on himself because Nikki never seemed to love him for who he was. He admits they went into the marriage with the goal of changing each other and keeps insisting that’s normal. In reality, that’s only normal for people in troubled marriages – or between couples who probably never should have gotten together in the first place.

When Pat gets out of the institution, he wants nothing more than to restore his marriage and finally become the man Nikki wanted him to be. He starts reading her favorite books, like Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” but can’t deal with the fact that it has an unhappy ending. Along with this, he still struggles to admit to himself that he suffers from genuine mental problems.

Even though Pat seems to be focusing on Nikki’s needs, he’s really still steeped in his own illusion of what their relationship was. In that sense, there remains a level of self-absorption in his struggle.

Tiffany has her own self-absorption issues. After her husband was killed, she started living a sexually promiscuous lifestyle because she blamed herself for his death. (It makes sense in the context of the story; I’m just trying not to give too much away.) Misplaced guilt can be its own form of self-absorption.

When we meet Tiffany, though, she’s fighting to move forward and forgive herself for past mistakes. She’s also willing to accept herself, flaws and all.

With Tiffany, Pat finds someone who challenges him, but who also accepts him. She sees the brokenness inside him and is reminded of the brokenness within herself. There’s a wonderul scene in which one of Tiffany’s former lovers comes to the door of her parents’ home looking for her because he wants to “get together.” Pat is there at the same time and sends him away, telling him that Tiffany is a nice girl, not an object to be used for his own gratification. Tiffany overhears this and gets a view of herself that she hasn’t heard for a long time. Pat’s opinion of her buoys her opinion of herself.

When the two of them start training for the dance competition, it accomplishes their goal of taking their minds off their own problems. Ironically, Pat finds his best self when he forgets about himself, when he becomes immersed in the dancing and in his feelings and responsibilities toward Tiffany. She also finds the healing she’s been looking for through her attempts to help Pat move forward with his life.

Though the movie isn’t at all overtly religious, the undercurrent of self-forgetfulness – of lifting yourself up by loving someone else – is a major presence in the story, much like it is in Christianity. It’s a method that should be in the playbook of anyone who is in pursuit of a silver lining.

(“Silver Linings Playbook” is rated R for foul language, sexual themes, and adult themes.)

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