For some of my posts, I’ll be reviewing portrayals of fatherhood in film, television and other media, exploring the theme of the undead dad, i.e., mindless fatherhood. My first exploration is of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Pat Saltano, Sr., in Silver Linings Playbook.
Silver Linings Playbook is a film adaptations of the book by Matthew Quick. In the film, De Niro plays father to Pat Saltano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a young man recently discharged from an 8-month stint in a psychiatric institution. We come to learn that Pat was institutionalized after a spate of delusions surrounding staff at the high school where he taught, culminating in a violent episode in which he nearly beat another teacher to death when he discovered him in a shower with his wife. Pat discloses that he has Bipolar Disorder to his outpatient psychiatrist, whom Pat is mandated to visit while released into the care of his aging parents, Pat Sr. and Delores. At the heart of the film is a moving relationship between Pat and an impulsive, traumatized young woman from the neighborhood, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).
Although the film’s focus is on these two characters, the movie is able to depict just as much complexity in the relationship between Pat Jr. and his bookie father Pat Sr. Through Pat Sr.’s peculiarities–the readjustment of remote controls, the folding and rubbing of a lucky handkerchief–we learn that he suffers from his own mental health issues. His wife Delores tiptoes around her husband’s OCD and tries keeping the peace between father and son.
The tenuous father-son relationship intensifies after several of Pat Jr.’s manic late night fits awake his parents, finally resulting in him striking his mother. Pat Sr. subsequently dukes it out with his son until the police arrive. Throughout the strife, Pat Sr.’s concern for his son is evident as he tries setting limits around his son’s obsession with his ex-wife and protecting him from the police and nosey high school neighbor who’s writing a school report on Pat’s illness.
Complicating Pat Sr.’s care of his son are his attempts at enlisting him in his own Philadelphia Eagles betting rituals. Pat Sr. tries to rope his boy into sitting with him to watch games, wear jerseys, or stroke handkerchiefs, believing his son’s presence positively affects the Eagles’ juju. Pat Jr. thwarts his father’s attempts, revealing them for what they are: manifestations of a mental illness that has ruled over the family for a generation.
I found Pat Sr.’s interactions with his son heartbreaking. Pat Sr. was so wrapped in his compulsions and rituals that he prioritized them over a genuine care for his troubled son. Through their interactions, it was apparent that Pat Jr.’s obsessive character–and eventual personal and legal downfall–were an extension of his father’s obsessive tendencies. At one point, Pat Sr. expresses a unique insight at his son’s bedside as he breaks down in tears. He laments that he wasn’t around for his son when he was growing up. He also acknowledges that his attempts at enlisting Pat Jr. in his Eagles rituals is the only way he knows of involving himself in his son’s life. He wishes he could relive the past, but realizes his limitation and admits that this is the only way he knows to have a more active role in his son’s life.
Many of us as fathers are striving toward the fulfillment of our own agendas or goals, and in doing so, can neglect our children’s needs. Sometimes our goal-focus is so strong that the only way we know of interacting with our sons is through very rigid patterns, activities, or obsessions. My father was a farmer and hunter growing up, so the only way he knew to spend time with me was through hunting. I find that I’m so task-focused in my day-to-day life that I organize “quality time” with my son around errands or projects. I believe it takes a lot of reflection about competing goals to realize where our motivations lie. Many times there is a struggle between satisfying our own needs versus tending to those of our children, and sometimes one is disguised by the other. These competing goals are reflected in Pat Sr.’s struggle when faced with his son’s mental illness.
Things come to a head for father and son when Pat Sr. insists on sending his son to an Eagles game to ensure his team’s win, effectively competing with Pat Jr.’s committment to Tiffany. Things end badly for everyone involved, with near arrests and great financial loss, leading Pat Sr. to blame his son for the family’s downfall. It’s Tiffany’s brilliant assessment of Pat Jr.’s involvement in the Eagles’ juju that leads Pat Sr. to put a stop to his blame and reconsider his delusional ideas, perhaps simply to replace them with Tiffany’s. Only by confronting Pat Sr. with his own obsessional/delusional language is the family able to recalibrate the man’s relationship with his son.
I think this sequence speaks to the ways in which parents can get so wrapped up in their own agendas that the only in-roads to their rigidity are made by using their language and interests. This can be in the most simple of examples, like when my son agrees to come on errands with me as a way of spending time with his dad. At its most extreme this might mean adopting delusional language to break through to a ranting Obsessive-Compulsive. Pat Sr.’s delusions were the extreme end of this spectrum, but his behaviors may resonate with many of us as parents. We must be mindful of the extent to which we get wrapped up in our own ideas, hopes, and dreams that we aren’t able to discern the needs of our children.
Overall, Silver Linings Playbook is an excellent exploration of relationships between people with serious mental health struggles and the connections forged through outrageous acts. The relationship between De Niro and Cooper’s characters highlight an extreme aspect of the struggle between fathers and their children, but one that resonates with me, and reflects many aspects of undead dad parenting.