Part of "Who Should Win," a series of video essays co-presented by Indiewire Press Play and Fandor.
There are nine nominees for best picture, with no hands-down favorite to win. Five of them (Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, Life of Pi, and Silver Linings Playbook) are also nominated for best director, usually a sign of being a top contender. Argo wasn’t nominated for its director, but it still has the momentum from other awards, with Lincoln right behind. Both Argo and Lincoln are commandeering prestige pictures about America’s winners (though in both cases, winning involves dirty tricks and deception). But my favorite movie is a comedy about a flat out, honest-to-god loser.
Silver Linings Playbook is a more revealing reflection of the world we live in than any of the other nominees. Oscar movies are typically issues movies, and the surface issue in Silver Linings Playbook is psychological illness. Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, struggles with bipolar disorder and tries to put his life together after spending time in an institution. But watching this movie, what becomes apparent is that American society is a psych ward in itself.
It’s a world of people who are perpetually self-medicating through any number of socially acceptable escapes: materialism, sports, sex and even the climactic dance competition, which reflects TV game show culture. These are the empty vessels in which these characters invest so much time and energy, if only to keep them from dwelling on their own lack of fulfillment. Pat isn’t the only crazy person in the movie, just the only one that’s clinically diagnosed. The rest of the ensemble is the rest of us, caught up in a society that breeds a condition of compulsive distraction.
But somehow director David O. Russell makes us laugh at the madness. Part of his success is in that he’s able to channel the energies of classic screwball comedy, and with this film, he proves himself to be a rightful heir of the genre. In a career that’s dealt with all kinds of insanity both on and off screen, this is perhaps his most personal film. It’s certainly the most personal of the nine nominated, and fully deserves the Best Director oscar. Each character is on a different neurotic wavelength, and he orchestrates them with a jazz-like sense of harmony and tempo, conducting moods that twist and turn like one big dance party of manias. His screenwriting also finds poetry in people’s pathetic attempts to articulate their failings.
There’s a significance to the title, Silver Linings Playbook, because it reflects our collective yearning for happy endings, a theme that the movie itself embodies as much as it explores. It puts all its chips on the table for an incredible, improbable double-happy-ending climax, where the ensemble’s obsession with winning goes into overdrive. But the way it plays out on screen reveals something much more sublime than winning—a genuine sense of camaraderie among its characters, who seem inextricably tied together even battling each other’s craziness.
You see it in the climactic scene. Pat and Tiffany’s schizo dance routine, a thing of grotesque beauty that makes sense only to themselves, is something they fully embrace as an expression of themselves, and draws them closer than ever. And it’s this authentic feeling of a community brought to life on screen, people fighting against an insane world by speaking in their own idiom and following their own demented logic, that no other nominated film can claim.
Who cares if this film doesn’t win an Oscar for best picture? It’s already achieved the ultimate victory on screen.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.