Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Oscars love a romantic comedy that’s not like other romantic comedies

Graphic: Rebecca Fassola, Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Like an “opposites attract” couple, the Oscars and romantic comedies have had a curious relationship over the years. Julia Roberts (in Pretty Woman) and Renée Zellweger (in Bridget Jones’s Diary) are among the actors who’ve earned performance nods for their rom-com work, and the genre has been represented in the screenplay category, too, with nominations for Sleepless In Seattle and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, among others. But it tends to be a certain type of dramatic, offbeat romantic comedy that catches the Academy’s attention in a major way. More Jerry Maguire (which earned five nominations), less When Harry Met Sally (which earned one). In fact, when you look at the contemporary romantic comedies that have broken through at the Oscars in categories beyond just acting and screenplay—like As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News, and much of Woody Allen’s early oeuvre—they usually share a couple of qualities: an auteur director, a prickly male protagonist, a quirky world, and/or a deeply stressful situation.

So even though the rom-com was at its absolute nadir in 2012, it’s not that surprising that Silver Linings Playbook managed to enchant the Academy, racking up eight nominations, including the “Big Five” (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), and becoming the first film since 1981’s Reds to be nominated in all four acting categories. Silver Linings Playbook has all the qualities that the Oscars love in a love story. It’s got a prestigious director in David O. Russell, who’d emerged as an unexpected Oscar darling with his 2010 boxing drama The Fighter, which itself scored seven nominations and two wins. It’s got a prickly protagonist in unfiltered, bipolar ex-teacher Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper). It’s got an eccentric world of working-class Philly dysfunction. And it’s got a deeply stressful portrayal of how mental illness affects a family. Toss in a subplot steeped in a real-life season of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, and the film really does feel like a spiritual sequel to Jerry Maguire, four-quadrant appeal and all.

The secret to Silver Linings Playbook is the stress. The most emotionally affecting moment in any romantic comedy is the part where something drives the two leads apart and all seems lost until one of them realizes they’ve been an idiot and rushes back to declare their love. Silver Linings Playbook bottles that feeling and stretches it across a full two hours. Not just in the central love story between high-strung Pat and depressive widow Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), but in every aspect of its high-wire look at family and mental illness.

The film opens with Pat leaving an eight-month stint at a psychiatric hospital and moving back in with his gentle mom (Jacki Weaver) and his obsessively superstitious, football-loving father (Robert De Niro). Pat’s subsequent struggle to re-adjust to normal life is more comedic than you’d expect for a drama but more stressful than you’d expect for a feel-good comedy. Silver Linings Playbook leaves just enough room to make you wonder whether things actually will work out okay. So, as in The Fighter, when the film lands on a conventional endpoint, you’re tricked into thinking you’ve watched something deeper than you actually have.

I don’t totally mean that as an insult. There’s something captivatingly watchable about Silver Linings Playbook, even as the mechanics of its quirky romance are so baldly on display. But the film plays differently today, now that Russell’s high-volume style is no longer in vogue, Lawrence is no longer America’s uncouth sweetheart, and Cooper is no longer trying to prove he can do more than just be the villain in comedies. Silver Linings Playbook feels like a product from a different era, which of course it is, but in an “Oh my god, I can’t believe 2012 was almost a decade ago” kind of way.

At the time, most of the attention for the film’s performances centered on De Niro and Lawrence—the aging icon who buoyed himself from a late-career slump, and the young starlet who basically cemented her entire celebrity persona by tripping up the stairs while receiving her Oscar for the film. Silver Linings came out right on the heels of Lawrence’s explosive mainstream breakthrough in The Hunger Games, and kicked off a weird run of Russell casting the twentysomething as increasingly middle-aged women. (As Russell tried to argue at the time, “She kind of has an ageless quality about her, which is remarkable… she could be 20, she could be 40.”) Silver Linings at least lampshades the fact that Tiffany is awfully young to have been both married and widowed (Lawrence was only 21 when she made the movie), although it doesn’t really engage with the 16-year age gap between its two leads.

As in all of her collaborations with Russell, Lawrence gives a big performance in Silver Linings Playbook, but it works in the sense that she’s very locked into the specific kind of dark-comedy realism he’s aiming for. Tiffany’s aggressive overconfidence clearly masks deep vulnerabilities, and Lawrence embodies that dichotomy well. She’s brassy, funny, and a touch heartbreaking in a way that hides just how thinly her character is written. There’s a recurring bit where Tiffany yells at Pat while he’s out running, which is funny every time it happens. Plus Lawrence comes as close as any human being actually could to selling terrible lines like, “I was a big slut. But I’m not anymore. There’s always gonna be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that, along with all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself, fucker?”

Rewatching the film today, however, the actor that stands out the most is Cooper, who provides the grounded heart to Silver Linings Playbook’s tricky tonal tightrope. There’s both a sweetness and an intensity to him, and his most compelling roles harness both qualities. (It’s what makes his Rocket Raccoon the best performance in the MCU.) When we first meet Pat, he’s trying to get a handle on his newly diagnosed bipolar disorder through the power of positive thinking alone, which tinges his clinical mania with an unnerving edge of optimism. As Russell put it, “What I think he brought to the part is an intention to reintroduce himself. A hunger and an appetite that lined up with the character’s hunger and intensity to reintroduce himself to the community.”

Russell, who adapted the screenplay from Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, originally wrote the role for Vince Vaughn (opposite Zooey Deschanel) and then Mark Wahlberg (opposite Anne Hathaway), but liked Cooper for his “really good bad-guy energy” in 2005’s Wedding Crashers. More so than most actors of his generation, Cooper has taken a particularly eclectic path to leading man fame, and that’s echoed in his weird, winding journey through rom-com history. Before reinventing himself as a serious awards-worthy actor in Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper played the zenned-out comic relief best friend to Matthew McConaughey in Failure To Launch, popped up in the ensemble rom-coms He’s Just Not That Into You and Valentine’s Day, and starred opposite Sandra Bullock in the infamous flop All About Steve. He basically had the same career as Ginnifer Goodwin until he unexpectedly remade himself as a comedic action star and acclaimed Oscar favorite.

You can tell Cooper is a smart actor because he gives weight and nuance to Pat’s mental health arc, even as it gets increasingly muddled. At the time of its release, there were plenty of debates about how well Silver Linings Playbook depicted mental illness. Russell made the film partly in honor of his son, who has bipolar disorder and OCD, and pops up in a small role as the Solitanos’ nosey neighbor. And Silver Linings earned praise for destigmatizing and normalizing discussions about mental health. But it’s not nearly as clear as it could be that it’s Pat’s medication, not just his love for Tiffany, that ultimately stabilizes his mood disorder and ends his obsession with getting back together with his ex-wife. Tiffany’s specific issues go undiagnosed and underexplored. And in general, Silver Linings Playbook conflates “quirky” and “mentally ill” in a way that feels fairly typical of the late 2000s/early 2010s.

It’s also worth pointing out that at least some of the narrative about the film’s important social themes was part of a carefully managed Oscar campaign organized by then infamous Oscar meddler/now infamous sex offender, Harvey Weinstein. Like Russell’s roaming handheld visual style, the heavier central topic helps dress up Silver Linings Playbook as something deeper than your average rom-com, even as the film ultimately delivers a pretty conventional romance—one that liberally borrows from previous feel-good Oscar favorites, swiping the blunt character dynamics of Moonstruck and the oddball dance catharsis of Little Miss Sunshine. As Scott Tobias put it in his incisive review, “The happy ending cheapens the real mental problems Cooper and Lawrence have, but it’s irresistible all the same.”

It’s a combo that worked for mainstream audiences as well as Oscar voters. Silver Linings Playbook topped The Fighter’s $94 million domestic gross with an impressive $132 million domestically (and another $104 million worldwide). Russell bested himself again with his next film, American Hustle, which earned even more money and racked up 10 Oscar nominations, including the Big Five and all four acting noms again. But American Hustle didn’t win any awards, and by the time Russell released Joy in 2015, the bloom was off the rose. Joy struggled at the box office and earned just one perfunctory acting nod for Lawrence. As Russell and Lawrence have faded from acclaim (at least for now), it’s actually Cooper who’s remained the most consistent Oscar player—not just as an actor but as a writer, director, and producer, too.

For their part, Oscar voters have continued their semi-ambivalent relationship to rom-coms. While La La Land scored big with its unusual mix of comedy, drama, and musicality, the more conventional rom-com The Big Sick earned just a single nod for its screenplay. Though the Oscars are happy to reward the most pedestrian of dramas, they tend to prefer other genres (horror, sci-fi, rom-coms, etc.) when they’re elevated or unusual in some way. I’ve long learned that the best way to enjoy the Oscars is to accept that their mission isn’t really to award the best movies of the year but rather the best “Oscar movies,” in whatever way the Academy currently defines that term. (And sometimes they define it well!) But for filmmakers who do want their romantic comedies to garner major Oscar attention, Silver Linings set a pretty effective playbook.

Next time: 2014’s About Last Night is a rom-com remake worth seeking out.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.