It's certainly easy to accuse David O. Russell of becoming a serial Oscar courter. Having clearly enjoyed the awards love showered upon The Fighter, Russell's gone on to adapt and direct Matthew Quick's Silver Linings Playbook, packing about five baity movies into one big crowd-pleasing quirkfest. Those who've followed Russell's career will say he's always padded banal substrates with the bizarre, but the filmmaker's new run of Academy-friendly fare is still worlds away from his former curios, like I Heart Huckabees or Spanking the Monkey. He's embracing the practice of bringing his gonzo tendencies to the mainstream, and if he's indeed hoping to woo Oscar voters in the process, the plan is working. With Silver Linings Playbook, viewers are gifted a buffet of cheer-worthy tropes, all stretched along a simple narrative track and dressed with Russellian weirdness. A mental illness dramedy that deals with sports, dance, romance, and lovably grotesque relatives, it manages to feel fleetingly fresh while recalling Rocky, As Good As It Gets, Dirty Dancing, and even The Fighter too. If there's anything especially adept about the storytelling, it's its ability to trick an audience into buying its faux newness, and even if voters don't fall for the recycling, they're still liable to take the movie's bait. With a thin batch of comedic contenders, its Best Picture nod is secured, as may be the nods for Russell's Direction and Adapted Screenplay.
The latter nomination is the safer bet for the filmmaker, as plenty are likely to be won over by the tightly woven tapestry of plot elements (think The Descendants, but with a lot of cozy compromise). Russell is bound to pick up some directing kudos along the line, but with frontrunners like Spielberg, Lee, Haneke, and Affleck in the mix, 2012 arguably boasts a stronger field than that of 2010, including Tom Hooper, the man who beat Russell to the podium two years back. The director should hope that his reformed modus operandi is achieving the maximum effect, and nabbing the voters who can't resist an Oscar-approved Dr. Feelgood. A nod may well go to Russell's Editor, Jay Cassidy, who was previously recognized for 2007's Into the Wild, and could receive credit for helping to merge all those moving pieces.
But Silver Linings Playbook's best bet for being more than just a bridesmaid lies with its cast, which has the potential to land a candidate in each of the acting categories. While Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and Naomi Watts (The Impossible) are sneaking up in hopes to dethrone her, Jennifer Lawrence remains your Best Actress frontrunner, with a complex performance that boasts shades of Meryl Streep, and is surely the best thing the movie has to offer. With his leading-male-goes-serious star turn, Bradley Cooper could push himself into Best Actor contention, as his story is one the Academy lives to reward. As a superstitious father with a wealth of emotional baggage, Robert De Niro should handily join the Supporting Actor bunch, finally breaking away from so many screwball comedies. And with her searing work in Animal Kingdom still fresh in voters minds, Jacki Weaver may well compete for the Supporting Actress trophy once more, playing another mother hen, only this time without malice. It's certain that Silver Linings Playbook is going to be an Oscar darling. What remains in the air is just how many plays it can pull off.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence; Best Supporting Actor, Robert De Niro; Best Adapted Screenplay, David O. Russell.
Possibilities: Best Director, David O. Russell; Best Actor, Bradley Cooper; Best Supporting Actress, Jacki Weaver; Best Editing.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: None.