“Silver Linings Playbook” is a perfectly enjoyable film -- but it’s far from perfect. Still, at press time it's starting to feel like it could have a fighting chance among the nine Best Picture Oscar candidates, all of which are underwhelming in their own special way.
Oscar buzz for David O. Russell’s ("Three Kings," "The Fighter," "I Heart Huckabees") successful stab at a warm comedy began after it won the Audience Award at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival. And while the chatter among viewers of its theatrical release hinted that "Silver Linings Playbook" was something of a letdown from the hype, critics were almost unanimously positive. It seems to have struck a particular chord with industry types, who are perhaps warmed by its thinking-person’s eye candy leads and the fact that Russell, who has famously battled with Lily Tomlin and Mark Wahlberg in other projects, managed to get through filming with nary a fisticuff.
The director's pacified approach worked for him: There is no disputing that Russell and “Silver Linings Playbook” got the best performance we’ve seen so far from Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover," "Limitless"), who really had not been given a chance to exercise his dramatic chops previously. (He surely will now.) And Robert De Niro’s turn as Pat's (Cooper) heartbreakingly out of touch father is certainly among his strongest in the last decade, after appearing in the critically panned "Meet the Parents" sequels and deigning to join the cast of the bubble-gum box office bait "New Year's Eve." Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom," "The Five-Year Engagement") is forever unimpeachable, but here she quietly outdoes herself by making sure -- as her character does -- that she always toes the line, without ever stepping on the toes of her leading men. (As I mention any chance I can get, the mascara smudges under Weaver's eyes throughout the movie are the melty icing on the cake.)
I can't possibly be as generous toward Jennifer Lawrence's performance. Indeed, watching Lawrence ("The Hunger Games," "Winter's Bone") nab Best Actress nods in both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild award shows gave me the uneasy feeling that I missed something big in this movie. Although she may indeed win the Academy Award for best actress, Lawrence's performance and her character are among the weakest points in the film -- second only to uneven plotting and implausible romantic entanglements.
To be clear, I do not consider “Silver Linings Playbook” a Best Picture front-runner on the basis of any superior artistic merit outside of a few knockout performances. It just feels like a movie that Hollywood loves to love. I have been waiting months for some meaningful backlash to the lavish praise bestowed upon “Silver Linings.” But instead, Russell’s deeply personal feature (his own son has a variation of bipolar disorder) seems to be gaining momentum while others, like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln,” are losing steam on technicalities.
As Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Spielberg are falling from grace for taking historical liberties in their scripts ("Zero Dark Thirty" has been criticized for its unrealistic portrayal of torture, while "Lincoln" has drawn ire for switching the direction that Connecticut congressmen voted on the 13th Amendment), Russell and Co. in the last few weeks have played, successfully, for the hearts and minds of viewers (and presumably voters) on the talk-show circuit, where De Niro has sprinkled a path to the Dolby Theater podium with his tears.
The weaknesses in "Silver Linings Playbook" are forgettable, as is the film itself, largely because the formula -- which Russell obscures by using self-consciously unconventional characters -- is one we have seen variations on before. Here, Lawrence's role in the formula is as the hot, young, damaged and sexually promiscuous widow Tiffany, who literally chases down a mentally unstable Pat (Cooper), who's prone to violent fits when reminded that his heart of gold is broken. Though their chemistry is tepid at best, she dangles herself in front of him and the audience as the prize he doesn't yet know he has earned.
Fair enough. But the real trouble begins [**MAJOR SPOILER ALERT**] when we learn that Tiffany has been conspiring to earn Pat’s affections through cold and calculating manipulation -- potentially disrupting his precarious recovery. But instead of heading for the hills, Pat professes his love, in a most anti-climactic and unconvincing way.
[MORE SPOILER] I believed, briefly, that Pat was poised to get back together with his ex-wife. And why wouldn’t he? That’s all he wanted, all throughout the film, and far as we know the marriage only ended after Pat assaulted his wife's lover -- a somewhat understandable crime of passion as opposed to an act of outright insanity -- not because his wife despised him or thought he was completely insane, although he was clearly an easily irritated and agitated piece of work before the incident. It's easy to speculate about what-if, but I think that the so-called satisfying ending we got was less satisfying than the ending we weren’t supposed to be rooting for.
But “Silver Linings Playbook” does have its particular charms -- the family legacy of rabid Philadelphia Eagles fandom among them -- and it certainly has its own fanbase cheering it on.
“Silver Linings Playbook” has a 92% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, wedged between “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln,” which are all dominated by “Argo” at 96%.
We agree with Indiewire that the fact that the historical odds of a best director snubee (i.e., Argo's Ben Affleck) winning the Best Picture trophy -- only three times in Academy history -- has been noted into oblivion, rendering it meaningless to both Oscar voters and fans. Still, Affleck’s vindicating victory lap from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs has started to feel excessive, and we have to believe that there are some curmudgeonly voters who don’t want to be outsmarted by the golden comeback boy they didn’t even think deserved a Best Director nod.
I don’t know if I’m alone in feeling like there’s something peculiar and vaguely counterintuitive about predicting this year’s Best Picture Oscar race. Even though, ostensibly, it’s a pretty tough call to make (certainly compared to last year), I can definitely see myself thinking, ‘well, I should have seen that coming,’ about a small handful of films. “Silver Linings Playbook” is one of them. If Russell’s sort-of comedy wins, it will be sort-of by default -- survival of the politically fittest. And who would we be to complain? Worse films have done better. Braveheart, Oliver, Going My Way -- we all have our cinematic bete noires that the Academy fell in love with. (Let’s just hope they don’t this year.)
After all, the Oscar race is a game, and “Silver Linings Playbook” plays very hard to win.