Crazy Is as Crazy Does – Madness and Narrative

Silver Lining Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

My family watched Silver Linings Playbook last night. We all really enjoyed the dark romantic comedy, but I couldn’t shake some misgivings.

Talking afterward with my eldest daughter (who’s just finished taking a college Intro to Psychology class), I realized that part of the discomfort I was feeling had to do with the portrayal of the mental and emotional states of the two main characters, Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). As Sasha pointed out, the two actors give fine, nuanced performances, but really, even given what little I know, their portrayals of two characters struggling with heavy-duty psychological issues had very little to do with clinical psychology and a lot to do with storytelling convention and narrative design. As we talked about it, I had this epiphany: in any story, madness (like magic, murder, etc.) is first and foremost a literary trope rather than an expression of objective psychological reality.

In the movie, we’re told that Pat is suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and was pushed over the edge by the breakup of his marriage. Tiffany’s mental instability too is a result of the end of her marriage — her husband died, and she has become pathologically needful.

Not exactly the classic recipe for a romantic comedy, right? Yet as the film plays out, it works out that that’s exactly what it is, not an attempt at a realistic portrayal of mental illness. We never see Pat in a depressed state: he’s either calm or hyper-agitated. Tiffany’s behavior seems, initially, to be largely in reaction to Pat’s actions. But of course, it’s a story, not a clinical study, and so all of the characters’ behavior exists to drive the story forward. Realism is a secondary attribute.

Insanity has been a staple of storytelling for as far back as we have stories. In the classical tales, madness is usually shown as a result of a character’s less-than-pleasant encounter with a god (a personification of a force of nature), or, in tragedy, as the unfortunate outcome of their fatal flaw. Hercules’ rage, Oepipus’ self-mutilating grief, Erysichthon’s hunger — all are expressions of a mortal’s inability to handle the ineffable.

Later, European stories would cast madmen and -women as demon-possessed; this is, essentially, the same thing. As Joseph Campbell put it, “A devil is a god who has not been recognized” (An Open Life). In this case, in stories like the plays of Shakespeare, Marlow, Webster, and Molière, the madness is often feigned, but always seen less as tragic than pathetic.

The Romantics — such as Blake, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft Shelley, and, later, Poe — turned back to something more like the Classical view of madness, portraying it as an overflowing of the character’s passion or genius. Combining that view with the scientific method, Freud, Jung, and the rest showed us the unconscious mind, the ways in which buried fears and desires can bubble up as neurotic and even psychotic behavior. The crazy are just like the rest of us, only more so.

Add to that philosopher Henri Bergson’s famous dictum that comedy is “the encrustation of the mechanical on the living,” and you have the recipe for the way that mental illness has been portrayed for the past century.

From Harvey to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Benny and Joon down to Silver Linings Playbook, writers have used eccentricity or outright insanity as a mechanism for getting at the human condition. The mad (or mad-ish) characters see things as no sane person would see them and say things that no sane person would say, and — like prophecies in myths and fantasies — these observations tend to have an unlikely aura of truth to them.

At the same time, depending on whether the story is a comedy or a thriller, the irrationality of the character is meant to be either amusing (Pat’s Pavlovian response to his ex-wife’s name, his father’s OCD rituals around watching football games) or terrifying (Pat’s PTSD-ish flashbacks triggered by a particular song). Crazy can be funny. Crazy can be scary — Hannibal Lector and his psychopathic kin are the contemporary Frankenstein monster.

The problem is that psychiatry is much less interested these days in the mind than in the brain. Talk therapy is still considered an important form of treatment for psychological, social, and emotional disorders, but the emphasis, especially with more serious disorders, has tended toward seeing the problem as physio-chemical and the solution as pharmacological. (One could easily debate the efficacy of this approach. I was relieved, even so, that Pat’s attempts to avoid his medication early in Silver Linings Playbook was portrayed as a mistake. Three decades earlier,  Cuckoo’s Nest for example portrayed the same act as healthy rebellion. Mind, different diagnoses, different circumstances, different medications. But still, interesting.)

Madness makes for interesting narrative. But it’s all in the service of the story. It’s not any more real than the orcs and elves in The Hobbit. 

Don’t get me wrong: I love eccentric, whacko, borderline crazy characters as much as the next person. Monk‘s over-the-top OCD; the ADD genius of Luna Lovegood and Leonard of Quirm, two of my favorite secondary characters in two of my favorite fantasy series; Benedict Cumberbatch’s high-functioning sociopathic Sherlock (“Do your research!”); the sweet, car-crash, edit-function-less pair of Pat and Tiffany — they are all wonderful, compelling characters whose slightly warped way of looking at the world both enriches the stories in which they appear and moves them forward.

But when, as in Silver Linings Playbook, there’s an attempt to portray real mental illness as a plot-device, it’s hard not to get thrown, just a little.

I’ve posted a poll at Stillpoint Author Blogs; let me know what you think!

Originally posted on

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