D/W: David O. Russell. DP: Linus Sandgren. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence/Robert De Niro/Bradley Cooper/Édgar Ramirez/Virginia Madsen/Diane Ladd/Isabella Rossellini/Elisabeth Rohm/Dascha Polanco.
January is one of the best months for movies as there is a mad rush towards award season despite the pretense that filmmakers do not care about awards. A fun and debatable topic, this January has seen the release of Joy, a new film for Jennifer Lawrence. One that is not based on a YA novel or a comic book, a relief frankly.
This is the third collaboration for director David O. Russel with actors Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The stellar Silver Linings Playbook won Lawrence her Oscar and the group reunited for 2013’s American Hustle. It is easy to understand repeat collaborations due to success, comfort, and creativity, but for me this has been fizzling out for awhile. Silver Linings Playbook was able to hold its audience until the end, drawing out its romance and drama in a way that felt fresh. American Hustle looked great and started off strong, but fell apart and left you feeling a bit bamboozled. Joy is a similar experience.
Starting off strong the film is narrated and structured by Diane Ladd who plays Joy’s (Lawrence) live in grandmother. As she reflects on the life of her seemingly favorite grandchild we get flashbacks of a character seen through the eyes of a loved one. Spunky and inventive young Joy is encouraged to make things, but her parents divorce spirals her to drop her dreams, fall in love, have kids, and eventually get divorced. Now the family breadwinner she struggles to return to her former inventive self. Using her daughters crayons one day she invents a self ringing mop that would become the now famed Miracle Mop.
Loosely inspired on the life of Joy Mangano, O. Russell reworked writer Annie Mumolo (who co-wrote Bridesmaids) original script so as to stray away from a straight biopic. Rather, Joy is a combination of women and Lawrence was free to create instead of imitate. Lawrence is full throttle here as she bears her burdens and stands up for herself. She’s not bad and her relate-ability works here, but there is a bit too much glamorizing for my tastes. She’s best in smaller moments of triumph like getting through a televised demonstration of her mop on the Home Shopping Channel than sauntering down the street in a pair of shades. Also please no more “She cuts her hair off in the bathroom herself then wins the day” scenes. Please!
Lawrence is surrounded by talent with De Niro getting some truly awfully patronizing lines that he manages to deliver convincingly. Édgar Ramirez is also great as her ex-husband/lounge singer Tony. The winner is surely Virginia Madsen as Joy’s anxiety stridden mother who never leaves her bedroom and watches soap operas all day. The importance of this fictional world and its visual conceit is never followed through. An fascinating echo of trapped pain and lost ambitions in generations of women. This is frustrating as most of Russell’s visual decisions disappear by the final act. Here he is working again with cinematographer Linus Sandgren who shot American Hustle, bearing its same faults in a way.
Ultimately, Joy is pleasing and infectious because it is essentially an underdog story. In a time of the active use of the word ‘feminism’ it is easy to route for a young girl who says when she creates that her gift is that she doesn’t “need a prince.” By the time her father says to her it’s his fault because he made her believe she could do anything you will want to punch something. Joy leaves you swinging your arms in triumph, but wondering if it couldn’t have been better.