This year’s Oscar race is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years. For the first time since anyone can remember, there are multiple selections that people actually like. This is quite a contrast to the usual state of affairs in an Oscar race wherein potential entries arrive with enormous advance hype and deflate upon arrival like punctured balloons when they fail to live up to expectations.
Oddly this year, a number of films are not only meeting expectations, but hanging on to their fans as new films arrive. As of this writing, a three-headed hydra made up of Lincoln, Argo and Life of Pi sits atop the field, battling it out for the prize. Just off-stage, waiting in the wings for its December debut, Les Miserables Kathryn Bigelow’s Bin Laden drama Zero Dark Thirty and Quentino Tarantino’s Django Unchained, clear their throats as we wait to see whether it will muscle a place into the top tier.
More surprising, however, given the strength of the top contenders — all in various ways fairly typical Oscar extravangazas — is the presence in the top tier of Silver Linings Playbook an off-kilter indie comedy. A tale of emotional dysfunctionals finding love and happiness, the film is the latest entry from Hollywood’s most openly dysfunctional, combative director David O. Russell.
Since his debut in the majors with 1994’s Spanking The Monkey, Russell has proven one of Hollywood’s most polarizing auteurs. His works apply a spirit of bipolar chaos to settings ranging from cross country road trips (Flirting With Disaster), the first Gulf War, (Three Kings), professional boxing (The Fighter) and department store spokespeople (I Heart Huckabees), typically revolving around characters who teeter at the edge of mania. Russell-land is a place of barely stable people seeking some sort of grounding, pushing the rat-a-tat of screwball dialogue to the edge of hysteria.
Off-screen, Russell has been noted for a personality as seemingly unhinged as his characters. His combative conversations with the media are the stuff of Hollywood journalistic legend. My one interview with him was a voyage down the Russell rabbit hole as he challenged and bickered with every single question put before him, no matter how innocuous, questions such as “Who were your influences?” Russell’s abrasive personality reportedly led to a fist fight between him and star George Clooney on the set of Three Kings. Five years later, Clooney was still seething, telling Premiere magazine “Quite honestly, if he comes near me, I'll sock him right in the fucking mouth."
In Silver Linings Playbook Russell doesn’t dance around the subject of emotional disorders, but dives headlong into them, creating a love story of bipolar, grief stricken people finding each other amidst a landscape of obsessive compulsion and communication breakdown. The pitch sounds just about the furthest thing from an Oscar film one can imagine. Comedy in general is the Academy’s least favorite genre (or second least favorite after horror). Since 2000, a grand total of two have been nominated. And those two — Little Miss Sunshine and Midnight in Paris — have been heavily on the feel good side of the genre, about as unedgy as dramas can be without becoming Hallmark commercials.
So why then is Silver Linings and its revel in a world of dysfunction, where characters rarely communicate in less than a yell, hovering near the top of the Oscar charts?
Well for starters, Silver Linings is a lot less edgy than its pitch would have you believe. Scratch the surface of its manic-depressive trappings, and you’ll find a fairly traditional feel-good romantic comedy about lost and lonely people trying to redeem themselves through the power of love.
And in that, its a very hard film to resist. The movie has been winning critical raves since it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September. And unlike some festival favorites that open in those hothouse environments with a bang, only to fizzle by the cold light of the open marketplace, Silver Linings’ charms only seem to grow with distance and affection for it has if anything increased since it first stepped out.
At the heart of the film are two terrific performances by the leads, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The latter is already an Oscar darling, having been nominated previously for her breakout part in Winter’s Bone. Perhaps the Academy’s favorite thing to do is bestow the best actress trophy on beautiful young stars just breaking through with their serious dramatic gifts. In a performance that steals every scene in which she appears, Lawrence certainly gives Oscar plenty to gush about.
Further, with this film Russell did the thing the world had all but given up on — delivered one more great performance from Robert De Niro. For the past decade plus, the once lion of the American screen has appalled many of his devotees with a career third act seemingly dedicated to half-hearted parodies of his early roles. After one Fockers too many, the world had moved on. But here, DeNiro is back, delivering a performance in the role of Cooper’s dangerously Philadelphia Eagles obsessed father that is at once powerful and riveting, but with a vulnerability and tenderness not seen in the actor’s performances in years. It is as though, at last, he felt ready to play a man in his twilight years, with all that involves.
A conventional comedy in indie clothes, peppered with some unforgettable performances by a cast of young up and comers and screen legends — what’s for Oscar not to like? In the end, Silver Linings might still sit behind the comedy eightball when it comes to challenging the big Dramatic guns like Lincoln and Argo, but the fact that it is even playing in these Oscar leagues speaks to its ability to charm a lot of different people in a lot of profound ways.
But even if the film faces a tough climb against stiff competition, it has one powerful card to play. The film is produced by Oscar-race legend Harvey Weinstein, the man who just last year steered a French silent film to the best picture trophy. Even with Harvey’s backing, Silver Linings may not beat the comedy curse, but it’s not going down without a fight.