"Silver Linings Playbook" won the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Previous recipients include "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire," which went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars, so is "Silver Linings" destined to follow in their footsteps?
As Tom O'Neil has noted (read here), "Silver Linings" has strong Rooting Factor, as evidenced by the passionate fanbase it developed in Toronto. That factor has helped other contemporary comedies that otherwise might not have looked like major awards contenders.
In 2007, "Juno," a young-skewing comedy about a wisecracking, pregnant teenage girl, had similar passionate support and earned nominations for Picture, Director, and Actress (Ellen Page); writer Diablo Cody won Best Original Screenplay.
"Little Miss Sunshine" had similar success in 2006. It was another small-scale comedy, a road movie about a family on its way to a children's beauty pageant. It too had passionate support and strong Rooting Factor, with its cast of underdogs – from "Rocky" to "Slumdog Millionaire," Oscar loves its underdogs.
"Sunshine" was also nominated for Best Picture and won two of its other bids: Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin) and Best Original Screenplay (Michael Arndt).
Those films may be relevant to "Silver Linings Playbook's" Oscar chances because it's rare for contemporary comedies to enter the Oscar race, and when they do they typically have some other form of highbrow appeal.
2010 nominee "The Kids Are All Right," for instance, had a pro-LGBT message blended into its family-sitcom dynamic. And last year's "Midnight in Paris," set partly in the past and partly in the present, had the artistic cachet of being Woody Allen's comeback film. In 2004, "Sideways" was carried by the overwhelming support of critics.
Going back to 1997, we'd find a film similar to "Silver Linings" that did quite well at the Oscars: "As Good As it Gets," also a contemporary love story about a man with psychological problems – Jack Nicholson's character suffered from OCD, while Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings" is manic-depressive.
That film, however, had other significant advantages. Its director, James L. Brooks, had a proven Oscar track record, having won the hat trick in 1983 for writing, producing, and directing "Terms of Endearment." And of course its star, Nicholson, is a Hollywood icon.
"Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine" didn't have that kind of pedigree or highbrow appeal, and neither does "Silver Linings," apart from one-time Oscar darling Robert De Niro in a supporting role as Cooper's dad. Nevertheless, "Juno" and "Sunshine" made it into the Best Picture race, and so "Silver Linings" could make it in as well, especially since it will compete in a Best Picture category expanded to as many as 10 nominees.
But "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine" have something else in common. For that matter, so do "The Kids Are All Right," "Midnight in Paris," "Sideways," and "As Good As it Gets": They didn't win Best Picture. And neither did "The Full Monty," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Broadcast News," "Moonstruck," "Working Girl," "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Tootsie." You'd have to go all the way back to "Annie Hall" in 1977 to find a contemporary comedy that won the top prize.
Strong Rooting Factor, it seems, is often enough to be nominated for Best Picture, but to win usually requires some greater sense of perceived importance, especially for comedies, which for the most part are not taken seriously by Oscar voters.
The most comic movie to win Best Picture in the last ten years was "The Artist" last year, which had extra artistic cred because it celebrated classic Hollywood by adopting the style of silent films. "Chicago" can be considered a comedy as well, but it also helped revive the movie musical. Before that was "Shakespeare in Love," which had the benefit of its subject, arguably the most celebrated writer who ever lived.
Compared to those, is "Silver Linings" serious enough to be taken seriously? Or will Oscar voters choose to go in a more conventionally dramatic direction?