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David O. Russell may consider himself somewhat fortunate with regards to the acclaim with which 3 of his last 4 films have been received. Combined these 3 films: The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle; have received 25 Academy Award nominations and 17 Golden Globe nominations, as well widespread critical and commercial success. Part of this fortune stems from the fact that Russell has had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest names and finest performers working in Hollywood today.
Since The Fighter Russell has worked with Christian Bale, Mark Walberg, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro amongst others. Furthermore, the fact these relatively good dramas have been so lavishly rewarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy is perhaps indicative, not just of the same levels of unwarranted bias that has, since their inception, reduced their value, but also the lack of comparable competition over the last few years.
This is not to say that Russell’s work over the past few years has been poor. They’ve all been solid films, elevated somewhat by the performances from the lead actors. Their strength has lain in their heart and in their humour, brought out in such a wonderful fashion in their very human characters. Whether it was Micky Ward in The Fighter, or Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, audiences became enraptured in their story, principally because they were so well endeared to the audience, which made their respective victories at the conclusion of the film all the more enjoyable.
What Russell succeeds miraculously in doing in Joy, is engrossing the audience in a story which is neither particularly original or, at its heart, very interesting. Joy tells the true story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), a divorced mother of two who invents a mop which seems better than other mops, and overcomes a series of hurdles to make the mop successful and earn some money. Not exactly Citizen Kane, but in the hands of Russell this becomes a story of thwarted potential and ambition, painful resolve, and the true value and nature of love. It’s a true underdog story, whose well-handled themes aim to strike at the audience with variable accuracy.
Joy however lacks exactly what had made his other films so enjoyable – their heart and their humour. Joy takes itself much more seriously than its predecessors, and moments of true levity are few and far between. Throughout the film Joy encounters so many setbacks, that it is difficult for the audience themselves not to become disheartened. This combined with the lack of humour and the only occasional moments of warmth, makes for an emotionally draining film. Fortunately the film’s eventual resolution is enough of a reward to pay for the previous scenes difficulty.
The most severe restraint on the films emotional impact is its fumbling script, whose lines carry all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. It’s frustrating, because the imagery Russell uses within the film is enough to demonstrate the dilemmas and motivations of the characters, without necessitating the characters outlining their emotions with such lurid detail. There is one particularly poignant scene, in which Joy considers her wasted potential from when she was a child, the audience’s witnesses her own feelings contrasted with that of an insect which goes underground for 17 years. This is enough to establish the concept in the audiences mind, but the Director insists upon the characters spelling it out, with lazily conceived exposition.
This film also sees a break from his previous films in its unapologetic dependence on stereotypes. The wicked stepmother and half sister, the agoraphobic mother, and the romantic but hapless ex-lover. This, combined with the strangely overt dialogue, risks transforming these characters into 2-dimensional caricatures – a risk that is only avoided by a strong cast willing to get more out of their lines than that which is offered to them.
What Joy inadvertently becomes, by the standards of the genre, is a somewhat abstract and surreal drama. The dream sequences tied in with the surreal soap opera, the insect imagery, the nonlinear narrative, the caricature characters, and the interesting transitions and shot selection, alongside the stylised set design, all contribute to adding an almost dream like sense to the film. In some respects Russell deserves praise for such bold direction – but what he ultimately achieves in creating is a confused film; on one hand attempting to portray the gritty journey of the 3-dimensional Joy, but within the confines of this cartoon world.
You have to wonder what this film would have been, had it not had such a talented cast. Robert De Niro, as Joy’s inconsistent father, gives a performance that reminds you as to why he is held in such high esteem. Meanwhile, Édgar Ramírez plays Joy’s loveable and supportive ex-husband, in what is perhaps his biggest, and strongest Hollywood role to date. Far from being reduced to the comic relief his character always has the potential to be as the wannabe Tom Jones who still lives in Joys basement, Ramírez succeeds in being one of the most endearing, and engaging characters in the film.
Dascha Polanco (Orange Is The New Black) who plays Joy’s devoted friend, brings together a wonderful supporting cast that also includes Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet, Enemy) as the spiteful and wealthy step-mother, and Virginia Madsen (Candyman, Sideways) as the equally dislikeable half-sister. Rosselini and Madsen deserve particular credit for making their characters quite so distasteful, as the genuine hatred you feel towards them is one of the sharpest emotions offered by the film.
But in truth, as in virtually all her work, this is a film built on the supreme talents of Jennifer Lawrence, playing the title character of Joy. At this point it’s almost not worth mentioning how talented the three time Academy Award nominee is, but in Joy Lawrence delivers one of her finest performances to date. At times she carries a shoddy screenplay with a nuanced and delicately balanced performance that brings life and energy to a film which at times lacks both. It lacks the extremities of her two previous performances for Russell – no longer is she played the hysterical love interest, but a more measured housewife whose characterisation is as complete as any other Lawrence role, perhaps other than as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series.
Despite receiving third billing, Bradley Cooper as Neil Walker (reuniting for the 4th time with Jennifer Lawrence) is a minor character – his overstated importance in the film reflecting the name behind the character, rather than the character itself. In a jarring scene in the final moments of the film, Walker and Joy reunite years later in a scene robbed of any emotional significance due to the fleeting moments they share together on screen. It’s frustrating; because as ever Cooper is wonderful in the scenes he is in, offering a level of charisma and presence to offset his familiar co-star.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its overtly feminist themes. Joy is a movie with passes the Bechdel test with flying colours as it tells the story of a woman single-handily battling against the odds to become a major success. This battle is not just against the exploitative industry so willing to take advantage of the naïve housewife, but against the values so prevalent within her own family. In what is perhaps the finest scene of the entire movie – at which point Joy appears to be on the verge of losing everything, De Niro chastises himself by saying: “It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have made her believe that she was anything more than a housewife”.
For once, Russell’s explicit dialogue works to his advantage as it demonstrates the values that exist not just within De Niro’s own household but society at large, and all the more emphasises Joy’s victory over them, and her extraordinary talents in doing so. This is a true story of female empowerment, and that is perhaps its strongest asset. Joy is however, ultimately frustrating and disappointing – for it is a film that held so much potential, but lacks the magic, humour, and heart that made Russell’s previous films a success.