The Long Shot: Lifting the cloud on 'Silver Linings'

In praise of the 'lighter' option in this year's Best Picture race

<p>Bradley Cooper in &quot;Silver Linings Playbook.&quot;</p>

Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook."

Credit: The Weinstein Company

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An accidental blessing it may be -- and one that has only come into effect since the Academy moved its calendar forward a few years ago -- but situating the Sundance Film Festival in the middle of Oscar season is a blessing nonetheless. A week of conversation about freshly unveiled, critically malleable films is a necessary tonic at a stage when the same small selection of Academy-approved contenders has been discussed, debated and designated for anything from two months to an entire year.

Observing a film like Grand Jury Prize winner "Fruitvale" still finding its feet with audiences and critics alike at the same time as "Beasts of the Southern Wild" manfully chugs its way to Oscar night is a reminder of how far the latter has come, sure, but also of how the conversation around this distinctly conversation-worthy film has settled, long before awards season has finished with it. Chatter may still be brewing around provocative, comparatively recent releases like "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Django Unchained," but for most of this year's nine Best Picture nominees, it feels like critics are just about ready to leave them to posterity. "Argo" may be the current favorite, but the Oscar discussion has long since left the film itself to dwell on its statistical anomalies.

In at least one case, however, I'm not sure the conversation ever quite got off on the right foot. "Silver Linings Playbook" has been playing the long game with audiences -- opening on limited release way back around Thanksgiving, it has only recently escalated to the point where Tuesday's grosses placed it at #2 on the US box office chart, its total having steeply risen to $70 million since the Oscar nominations. Over four months on from its buzz-igniting Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, David O. Russell's spiky sorta-romantic comedy has found its audience -- and that obviously includes much of the Academy, who rewarded it with a better-than-expected haul of eight nominations. 

Yet in my conversations with colleagues and non-film folk alike, "Silver Linings Playbook" is the Best Picture nominee for which I'm struggling to gauge much affection. My evidence is anecdotal rather than scientific, but where I've encountered gushing devotees of everything from "Amour" to "Argo," even to the aggressively polarizing "Les Mis," I'm still in the process of identifying the "Silver Linings" faithful. In the Oscar blogosphere, meanwhile, many responses to the film veer from the indifferent to the resentful, among bloggers as well their readers.

"Lightweight" is a frequent complaint, though so is "overbearing." The unapologetically screwy sexual politics of Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany have been called into question in some quarters; in others, the film's whimsical portrait of surmounting mental illness. The presence of both Russell and Harvey Weinstein hasn't endeared many to its cause: Russell may be one of the most vital American filmmakers of his generation, but his past personal reputation is a sticking point for the stubborn, while Weinstein's record of Oscar success ensures he'll always be regarded somewhat warily in the race. Even within the Weinstein pool, "Silver Linings" is taking some flak for being the softest of his company's options, prioritized over spinier contenders like "Django Unchained" and "The Master." 

The one purported comedy in the Best Picture lineup -- though it's roughly as dramatic as "Django" is comedic -- "Silver Linings Playbook" is therefore getting much the same Oscar-season treatment as last year's "The Artist," the hip critical line on which went swiftly from odd-duck Cannes darling to middle-of-the-road bluehair bait before the season was out. Unlike "The Artist," "Silver Linings Playbook" doesn't look like much of a threat for the top prize, yet you can still hear the makings of a backlash for de facto Best Actress frontrunner Lawrence, a sparky movie star giving a sparky movie-star performance amid graver thesping from more senior actresses. (At least she looks like a veteran beside Quvenzhane Wallis.)

Yet after a second viewing that passed the test of in-flight diminishment, I couldn't be more pleased that "Silver Linings Playbook" is in the race, or that the individuals involved have received due recognition. Watching it again, particularly its jagged, garrulous, positively hostile first act, I was surprised anew that anyone could think of it as the marshmallow option in this Best Picture lineup: David O. Russell has long specialized in comedies of conflict, and there's an ugly-but-genuine sense of hurt to the film's unruly early rhythms, which only settle into the more comfortable (and comforting) structures of classic romantic comedy as the characters find their own feet; this is a film that fights hard for its conventions.

Like Russell's "The Fighter," an even better film that many also dismissed as a formulaic Oscar makeweight, "Silver Linings" uses a Hollywood template to galvanize a less structured examination of disorderly families and communities. The film's resulting screwball chaos may strike others as more contrived than that, but either way, it's no easy Academy sell -- Russell may have climbed down to slightly more reachable heights than the gonzo perch of "I Heart Huckabees," but his latest nonetheless strikes me as one of the weirdest, woolliest films in the Oscar race. I'd personally rank it third on my preferential ballot, behind "Amour" and "Zero Dark Thirty," but it may be a rarer bird than either of those two more immaculate works. 

I'm thrilled that Russell's off-kilter sensibility has been so warmly embraced by the Academy over two consecutive films, and not especially bothered that he's made some smart concessions to the mainstream to get there. I'm glad that Jennifer Lawrence, whether she wins or not, is getting as much credit as she is for a quick-witted star turn that dares not to betray the effort behind it, half-nodding to Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard and any number of actresses who deserved more prizes than they got for this sort of thing.

I'm pleased that Bradley Cooper, my second-favorite of the Best Actor nominees, has been allowed to nail a role that taps into his Will Tippin adorkability rather than his ill-fitting "Hangover" smarm -- and that the Academy, all too often shy of matinee idols, noticed the difference. I'm even happy for Jacki Weaver, whose supremely unlikely Best Supporting Actress nod not only sounds a victory for character actors and genuine supporting roles in a category often forgetful of them, but consolidates one of the most remarkable career rebirths in recent memory.

I find so much to be pleased for in the current awards journey of "Silver Linings Playbook" that I'm sometimes taken aback by the frosty reactions it prompts among many of my fellow awards-watchers -- not that the film, for all its positioning as the feelgood contender in a conscientious field, quite radiates or reflects warmth in the manner you'd expect of an Academy crowdpleaser. For all the complaints directed at the Academy on the occasions they don't nominate one, comedies routinely get a hard time in the Oscar race, perhaps because it takes some distance before we can identify which ones to take seriously. Too sweet for universal respect, too acrid for universal relief, "Silver Linings Playbook" is perhaps the Oscar player that would benefit least from an unreserved embrace.

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014