I’ve been watching a lot of movies in the past few months. Inspired by the Cineworld Unlimited Card, which lets me see as many movies as I like at the Cineworld theaters for a set price, and the status of my closest friend as a self-declared movie nut (he really is), I’ve been soaking myself in film. Lots of it, different kinds, old and new, classic and cult. But I was at the theater recently, struck by a completely important thought that stuck with me long enough to come write about:
Hollywood is completely off their rockers when it comes to mental illness (pun intended).
A few weeks ago, I finally saw Silver Linings Playbook, partially because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about with Jennifer Lawrence winning Best Actress (she had one good scene… it was a political win since she didn’t win for Winter’s Bone in 2011), and partially because I had heard it was “a great movie that shows what mental illness is really like and opens up the public to it.”
I want to state for the record that I am deeply disappointed in this opinion, and the movie, and warn everyone against conceiving of mental illness as portrayed in Silver Linings Playbook. This stance comes from several things:
1. The characters are displayed as highly erratic. While people with bipolar disorder can display erratic behavior, Bradley Cooper is over the top—he yells, does things with out explanation, loses control in a distinctly “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” way, rather than Bipolar. Anyone who has ever seen Bipolar, even in a Manic episode, knows the difference. Anyone who hasn’t will be terrified of what they see in the movie, and unjustifiably so. Mental illness doesn’t look like this.
2. The movie portrays the mental health care system as distinctly cold, unfeeling, and basically incompetent. Every staff member shown is ice, ice, baby, and somehow one character keeps repeatedly escaping from the care facility. That character is made to seem like some hapless, harmless patient, who is in fact perpetuating the idea that the mental health care system is an oppressive, freedom-stripping regime.
3. The idea of a relationship between two mentally ill people is glamorized in the movie. Can I just say that the most dysfunctional relationships I’ve ever encountered in my work have always included two people with mental illness? I mean, everyone has a variety of shit they live with in real life, but it’s not like, oh, I found this other fucked up person, and we understand what it’s like, so suddenly all our problems go away. “Normal” (I know, there’s no such thing) relationships are tons of work, don’t make the extra-hard variety seem like peaches and cream.
So basically, you know, I didn’t like it…
But, I went and saw Identity Thief (anyone else notice how eerily similar these posters are?), and strangely, though it’s some sort of comedy, not at all intending to give a realistic picture of mental illness, I think Melissa McCarthy portrays a much more realistic picture of what it actually looks like. Though the two movies show entirely different kinds of mental illness, Silver Linings Playbook is an exaggerated caricature with a sappy Happily Ever After, whereas Identity Thief is a starkly realistic view of sociopathology, with an equally sappy Happily Ever After. If you’re getting stuck with the Hollywood ending either way, I’d much rather people understand what mental illness looks like in Identity Thief. After all, the kinds of antisocial behavior shown by Melissa McCarthy are present in small doses in everyone (anybody else a big pirater of music or movies? anybody else speed when they drive?), and in large doses in some (Enron? Lehman Brothers? The Unibomber?).
To understand that mental illness is alarming, sick, and needs treatment, not glamorization or exaggeration, is the real point of it all. A lot of treatment comes in the prison system, unfortunately. I’d just rather have people realize that it’s much more prevalent than we think, and the platform for discussion is right in front of us if we just choose to see it.