It’s official: David O. Russell has gone mainstream. I don’t mean that as a bad thing; it’s not like he’s gone off and started making Transformers when we weren’t paying attention. In fact, I rather like this new guy. Though he made his feature debut in 1994 with some movie starring Jeremy Davis called Spanking the Monkey, which sounds just about as bizarre as its title suggests, Russell broke out with the Gulf War-set Three Kings, later followed by the quirky, love-it-or-hate-it comedy I Heart Huckabees. Still, it wasn’t until 2010, when he made The Fighter with frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, that the director really received widespread recognition. That movie went on to become a major awards contender, ultimately garnering a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars as well as a nomination for Russell and wins for Bale and supporting actress Melissa Leo. After winning the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it looks like Russell’s latest, Silver Linings Playbook, might be headed in the same direction.
This swell of awards buzz is well-deserved but, frankly, rather surprising, seeing as the movie itself seems to have no such lofty intentions, eschewing the showy ambition that usually characterizes Oscar hopefuls for something far more modest. All things considered, in terms of narrative, Silver Linings Playbook is pretty much just your standard romantic comedy. It’s certainly as predictable as one, adhering for the most part to the conventional boy-meets-girl structure without throwing any particularly unexpected curveballs or game-changing twists. Of course Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are going to end up together, so it’s just a matter of how they get there, one of those “it’s the journey, not the destination” deals. The difference between Russell’s film and the generic Katherine Heigl/Jennifer Aniston vehicles that have made the genre a target of derision is that we actually care about that journey. Where most rom-coms are cloying and annoyingly artificial, this Playbook sings with honesty and unreserved exuberance every step of the way.