When I saw David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook at the Toronto Film Festival in September, I found it a tiny picture with few ambitions and some agreeable performances — a possible pleasure boost for art-house audiences but not nearly of awards caliber. Apparently I wasn’t looking hard enough. Boosted by The Weinstein Company, which won the two most recent Best Picture Oscars with The King’s Speech and The Artist, Russell’s romcom has vaulted toward the front of the Academy Awards morning line.
Consider that Silver Linings appears on the Best Picture lists of all 26 “Oscarologists” who forecast awards on the Gold Derby website. Anne Thompson, who is as acutely attuned to Oscar buzz as a bat to a supersonic frequency, predicts six Silver nominations — for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Bradley Cooper), Actress (Jennifer Lawrence) and Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro) — on her Thompson on Hollywood blog. Her equally astute colleague Kristopher Tapley, of In Contention, sees the movie getting all the Thompson nominations except Director. The smart-money people like it, they really like it; and their imprimatur gives audiences a reason to see the film beyond the pairing of the Hangover guy and the Hunger Games gal.
Russell built his indie rep on two kinda-comedies, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, that placed the modern American family in the middle of Dysfunction Junction and watched with satire and some sympathy as crises whizzed past, imperiling all standing there but never quite killing them. After Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, he returned to his fractured-family theme with The Fighter, a true-life Sports Inspirational movie that often played like acute, high-volume farce. Mom (Melissa Leo) and one of the kids (Christian Bale) were wildly unstable, but everyone loved everyone else. The Motion Picture Academy loved them too; both actors won Oscars.
(READ: Corliss on Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games)
Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, is so fond of the damaged people in its pages that it might have been written with Russell in mind. The father, Pat Solitano, a bookie with dreams of opening a cheesesteak restaurant, has been banned from attending games of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles because he’s picked too many fights with other fans. His son Pat Jr., a former high school teacher, is certifiably nuts — he has a four-year stay in an asylum to prove it, for assaulting his wife’s lover — and, on his release, believes he can reconcile with Nikki if he just shapes up and stays positive. This is a long shot, like the Eagles winning the Super Bowl ever. (They got there twice, in 1981 and 2005; lost both times.) Pat Jr. should pay more attention to the young woman, Tiffany, who has acquired a reputation as an easy lay, stemming from her desperation after her policeman husband died. Tiffany would be a perfect addition to the Solitano family.
(READ: Corliss’s review of David O. Russell’s The Fighter)
The Russell movie has De Niro as Pat Sr., Cooper as Pat Jr. and Lawrence as Tiffany. All that star power may have made the writer-director averse to experiment, for Silver Linings Playbook is his most timid and conventional feature. It’s the kind of movie where a character does something obvious for the first hour (like Pat Sr.’s attempts to get close to his son by begging him to watch Eagles games with him) and then, in the second hour, explains the obvious. To quote loosely: “I begged you to watch the games with me so I could get close to you.” The crazy closeness of the family in The Fighter seems a model of subtlety compared with the Silver Linings head-butting of cartoon characters.
(READ: Belinda Luscombe on the early David O. Russell movies by subscribing to TIME)
It’s also another film set in Philadelphia — actually, Ridley Park, just across the city line — where none of the actors even tries to speak in the area’s distinct nasal twang. Playing its characters’ emotional disturbances for broad comedy, the movie suggests a cutened-up version of the 1962 neurotics-in-love drama David and Lisa (also set in suburban Philadelphia). Finally, this is a story so deeply comfortable with narrative clichés that it climaxes with… a dance contest. Will Pat and Tiffany bond as they practice for their big night? Will they earn a high enough score to keep Pat Sr., who has bet his savings on the outcome, from going broke? Will the sun rise tomorrow over Ben Franklin’s statue at the top of City Hall?
(READ: Mary Pols on Bradley Cooper in The Hangover Part II)
One last question: Then why go? To see some big-time actors make themselves at home in this ramshackle structure. Cooper has exactly the ferocious drive that may have put Pat Jr. away for a while, plus a humane wit that gives Pat Jr. the potential to grow out of his illness. De Niro — no longer the raging bull, now the Focker father-in-law — squints and screams and sighs with an exasperation that may reflect his current career status, but which also suits the personality of a man worried that his own anger-management issues may have bloomed even more dangerously in his son. Jacki Weaver, the Australian actress Oscar-nominated as the killer mom in Animal Kingdom, is the civilizing influence in the Solitano home: Marge Simpson to Pat Sr.’s Homer. And Chris Tucker, the ingratiating countertenor comic from Jackie Brown and the Rush Hour movies, brightens the screen whenever he shows up as one of Pat Jr.’s friends from the asylum; it’s Tucker’s first non-Jackie Chan film in 15 years.
(READ: Corliss on Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies)
The performances of these actors, not the Oscar murmurs, are reason enough to look for Silver Linings. The reason to stay is Lawrence. Just 21 when the movie was shot, Lawrence is that rare young actress who plays, who is, grown-up. Sullen and sultry, she lends a mature intelligence to any role, whether as the one sane person in Winter’s Bone or as Raven (Mystique) in X-Men: First Class. Her Tiffany at first seems more dangerous than Pat Jr.; she stalks him on his morning jogs and says of herself, “I’m just the crazy slut with the dead husband.” But Tiffany has the ability to thaw — slowly, without renouncing her principles or her gravity — and, by luring Pat Jr. into that ridiculous dance contest, to give his life a purpose, other than his daft scheme of reconciling with Nikki. She is clearly Pat Jr.’s salvation, just as Jennifer Lawrence is the silver lining is this mostly ordinary playbook.