LONDON'S RIVERSIDE FILM FESTIVAL

Unpacking Excelsior: Mental Health in Silver Linings Playbook

Excelsior” says protagonist Pat to his family, “it means you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna take all this negativity and I’m gonna use it as fuel. I’m gonna find a silver lining, that’s what I’m gonna do… That takes work and that’s the truth.” “Excelsior” in other words means “ever upward” or “higher.” This is the New York state motto, but also Pat’s motto in the film Silver Linings Playbook. It is a powerful motto to anyone dealing with a mental illness.

Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat (Bradley Cooper) who has been in a mental institution for eight months after he got into a fight with his wife’s lover and was diagnosed as bipolar. The film begins with Pat’s mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), picking him up from the hospital to bring him home to live with his family. Pat is motivated to get his life in order and win back his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee). His journey takes an unexpected turn when he meets widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who is also struggling with an unnamed mental illness and depression. She talks him into doing a dance competition with her in return for her delivering a letter to Nikki, whom she knows through her sister. The film is about what it is like to deal with a mental illness; the struggles it brings, but also the beauty that can be found within the struggle. “Excelsior” illustrates this perfectly. Having a mental health disorder can often feel like you are at war with yourself, there are a lot of hard times. Silver Linings Playbook shows this through Pat’s separation from Nikki, his therapy sessions, his panic episodes – one in particular revolves around him trying to find his wedding video – and him facing his triggers like going to a rowdy football game for his dad.

Silver Linings Playbook

Through these tough times Pat always sticks to his motto: “Excelsior.” He exercises, partners with Tiffany for her dance competition, spends time with his friends and shows kindness and compassion even when others test his patience. Pat’s ability to find a silver lining is what the film is all about. Silver Linings Playbook is full of symbolism that helps highlight the value of “Excelsior.” Starting with nods to the complexity of mental illnesses that exist, from bipolar to OCD to depression and anxiety.

It is particularly interesting how the characters diagnosed with mental illnesses are viewed by the people who are not. Pat is judged throughout the movie by his neighbors, his brother (Shea Wigham), and his friends. It is clear though, that all of these people are struggling in different ways too, but they are not willing to confront their problems like Pat is. Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) warns Pat about Tiffany stating, “Oh, she’s a mess. You gotta be careful. She goes to a lot of therapy.” To which Pat responds, “I go to a lot of therapy, Ronnie. What are you trying to say?.” Then before Ronnie can say much else Pat adds, “Am I messed up? Why don’t you stop judging people. You judge everybody. You’re the one who has a messed up marriage.” This conversation is so important because it illustrates how misunderstood mental illness is, that everyone has their own problems, and everyone needs help; that the willingness to go to therapy to get help is not something to be ashamed of, but something to be admired. There is true strength in facing your struggles head on. This idea is further discussed when Ronnie continues to warn Pat about spending time with Tiffany, to which Pat responds, “People like Tiffany, or Danny (Pat’s friend from the mental hospital), or me, maybe we know something that you guys don’t know, okay? Did you ever think about that?” Pat is trying to say that perhaps people who are defined as mentally ill simply have a different perspective on life than others, and that isn’t a bad thing. Having a mental illness is so often misunderstood and the fact that Pat continually defends himself against his friends and family’s prejudice shows his strength and belief in excelsior. That he knows he is a good person, and he owns his struggles, which many people in the film do not. This is an important message to anyone, especially those battling a mental illness to say that they are not defined by their struggles, they are defined by how they face the challenges in their lives and work their hardest to find the silver linings in their lives.

Another major piece of symbolism is the incorporation of the book, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. One night Pat becomes frustrated after finishing this novel and complains to his parents. He wonders why the book has such a sad ending stating, “there’s scenes of them dancing (a nod to the dance competition with Tiffany), which was boring, but I liked it, because they were happy. You think he (Hemingway) ends it there? No! He writes another ending. She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys. It’s f— hard enough as it is. Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”  This novel parallels the movie, which revolves around Pat and Tiffany’s dance competition. A lot of hard work and time is put into their dance. Even his whole family gets involved when his dad (Robert De Niro) bets on them to score a five in the competition. They are under a lot of pressure, while also dealing with romantic feelings for one another. In the end Pat and Tiffany do score a five, but the real victory is that they find love in one another.

Silver Linings Playbook

Unlike Hemingway’s novel, Silver Linings Playbook ends on a positive note, with Pat and Tiffany laughing and spending time together with their families. Ending on a positive note solidifies Pat’s motto “Excelsior” and his belief that through the struggle and pain that a mental illness can bring, if you keep fighting, keep working hard, you will find your silver lining. That even though there will be dark days, there will also be good days. That having a mental illness does not determine the outcome of your life. You do. 

by Sarah Heiden