Joy Dir. David O. Russell

[20th Century Fox; 2015]

Styles: biopic, JLaw
Others: anything else by David O. Russell starring Jennifer Lawrence

Something happened to David O. Russell after I Heart Huckabees — something besides the internet-wide dissemination of his on-set tirade against Lily Tomlin and the disastrous and ultimately aborted production of Nailed (eventually salvaged, recut and released this year as Accidental Love, against Russell’s wishes and without his name in the credits). No, something switched in his brain, in his heart, or in both, and he emerged from half a dozen years in the Hollywood wilderness as a very different filmmaker. It wasn’t immediately apparent; 2010’s The Fighter was a fine film which drew a handful of deserved Academy Award nominations, with Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both taking home statues for their performances. But two years later came Silver Linings Playbook, which was about half an hour of Bradley Cooper jogging interspersed with some schmaltzy Lifetime channel pap about how mental illness can be cured by dancing. Despite the material’s personal draw for Russell (his son is diagnosed bipolar and OCD), the ensuing film felt cheap, facile, smug, and unearned. Robert De Niro gave a performance of unexpected subtlety as Bradley Cooper’s similarly afflicted but undiagnosed and untreated father, who finds an outlet for his aggression through watching and betting on professional football, but it was Jennifer Lawrence who got all the attention, winning an undeserved Best Actress Oscar (didn’t any of the judges see Amour?) for an inconsistent performance that was largely engineered in the editing room.

The next year, Russell made American Hustle, which once again landed nominations in all four acting categories, in addition to another six, including Best Picture and Best Director. Lawrence’s performance was as spotty as her accent, counting largely on histrionics to carry her through the film — for every great moment she nailed (“science oven”), there were just as many she flubbed, and acting opposite greats like Christian Bale and Amy Adams she came off more like the spunkiest girl in drama class than an Oscar winner. Russell, like Ted Demme when he made Blow, tried in vain to channel the electricity of Scorsese, haphazardly whipping his camera around and hoping it would all cut together in the editing room, using narration to suture the parts that didn’t. But neither Demme nor Russell is Scorsese (and they don’t have editors like Thelma Schoonmaker) and the results were entertaining but flaccid.

Now, after a year off, comes Joy, Russell’s latest bid for Academy gold and a blatant love letter to the woman who has revitalized his career and in the process turned herself into the biggest star in Hollywood. This movie is front-to-back the Jennifer Lawrence show and, truth be told, she knocks it out of the park. As Joy Mangano, emotionally abused daughter, harried single mother, and inventor of the Miracle Mop, Lawrence is steely, magnetic, and affecting — she has, quite simply, never been as consistently great as she is here. But her greatness also points to a significant flaw in Russell’s recent films: a belief that the strengths of his films’ casts will make up for weaknesses in their construction, that Russell’s job is simply to add all the right ingredients, stir, and photographically capture the ensuing magic; it’s a directorial process that explains the vacuous center and the bald-faced emotional manipulation which characterize his last several efforts.

“Magic” is a word that, pointedly, gets thrown around a bit in Joy, always to describe its titular protagonist, a former high school valedictorian whose design for a more humane dog collar was stolen when her mother (Virginia Madsen) failed to file the paperwork for a patent. Now grown up with a daughter of her own, Joy is divorced and working as an airport concierge to make ends meet. She shares her home with her mother Terry, who since divorcing her father has become mentally unstable, refusing to leave her bed or turn off the soap operas she watches religiously; her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who misses no opportunity to tell Joy that she is destined to be a great matriarch; and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a not-particularly-talented lounge singer with dreams to be the next Tom Jones. When her father Rudy (Robert De Niro), the owner of an auto body shop, gets dumped by his latest girlfriend and comes looking for a place to stay, Joy finally snaps; using her daughter’s crayons, she sketches out her plans for a self-wringing mop, the million dollar idea she believes will pull her out of her debt and depression.

On her quest to make, patent, manufacture, and sell her Miracle Mop, Joy repeatedly acts with blatant disregard for rules and reason, convinced that she and her invention are, as her grandmother always tells her, “magic.” After borrowing the necessary capital from her father’s latest paramour Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), Joy has an initial run of Miracle Mops manufactured by a California based fabricator who makes parts for Rudy’s body shop. Sales are slow, however, as Joy learns such lessons as, “Stores deal directly with corporations,” and, “It’s illegal to sell merchandise in the parking lot of a K-Mart.” Things begin to look up, however, when Tony gets her a meeting with Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), whose television station QVC is just beginning to infiltrate the homes of housewives across the country. Joy’s mops make it to the airwaves and start to sell in record numbers, but extortion and fraud threaten Joy’s solvency and the future of her product.

Russell trusts us to automatically be on Joy’s side, not least of which because she’s played by Lawrence, and it’s difficult to not on some level read the film as a metaphor for Lawrence’s path to entertainment royalty. The film’s Joy is a headstrong woman who barreled into the room without quarter for traditional decorum, social niceties, or gender politics, insisting upon her own brilliance and making inelegant demands for attention. In one scene, Joy meets with Rudy and Trudy in Rudy’s office to solicit the money needed to manufacture her first run of mops but finds the din of the shop distracting; after banging to no avail on the glass partition between Rudy’s office and the body shop, Joy motions to her father to silence a nearby welder who is making too much noise. Never mind that it is Joy who is intruding in a place of business, nor that this is an auto body shop and working on cars is what people do here &mdash this is Joy’s mission, and everyone needs to step in line or step aside. Granted, stories are generally written about history’s winners, and hindsight shows us that Joy was right &mdash just as Lawrence has finally blossomed from a popular but underdeveloped performer into an actress of real depth and skill, Joy’s inept crayon drawings did in fact lead to the first of over 100 successful patents and a multi-million dollar empire.

But being historically right doesn’t make it good storytelling. The Miracle Mop may not have any loose ends, but Joy certainly does. Characters just stop showing up when they’re no longer needed (one of which is at least written out by death) and sore thumb music cues come in ostentatiously and then awkwardly fade out like the soundtrack equivalent of Family Guy’s Kool-Aid man gag. The narrative is spelled out through sloppy expository dialogue, while thematic metaphors are established and then never explored. Is it supposed to be ironic or fitting that television, the very thing which destroyed her mother, is the source of Joy’s success and salvation? What are we to make of the uneasy balance between integrity and appearances? Or the cloying and unearned moments of magical realism? Is the soap opera prologue which opens the film supposed to be a lens through which we view Russell’s sanitized, melodramatic world, with its Hallmark card voiceover and delicate piano score?

Russell makes it very clear that Joy isn’t just designing a mop: she is attempting to rebuild the stable and loving family that she lost when her parents separated. He does this primarily through the image of a paper model home young Joy has constructed and which she keeps in a shoebox; when her parents divorce, in a moment of anger, Rudy grabs the virginal white paper from the shoebox and tears it, both literally and figuratively destroying their home. Later, frustrated by her mounting debt and the theft of her patents, Joy rips her original designs for the Miracle Mop off the wall and tears the papers to shreds. But don’t worry if you missed the metaphor, because Russell cuts to a nice big closeup of De Niro just to make sure you’ve got the message.

When I Heart Huckabees came out, it showed growth, intelligence, and a subtlety that is sorely lacking in his subsequent films. Additionally, it suggested Russell was capable of marrying form to content in a manner that increased my already significant interest in where his career would take him. With each passing film, however, it seems more and more like his most interesting work was an aberration, a rare moment of formal and conceptual rigor that he has neither the interest nor the patience to repeat. “When someone sees a weakness in me,” says on the fictitious soap stars in the prologue to Joy, “I turn that weakness into a strength.” Russell has taken the criticisms of I Heart Huckabees — namely charges of pretension and a perceived sterility and aloofness — and turned them into a string of wildly successful yet mawkish pictures. I would argue that’s not a strength, but it’s certainly won him quite a few acolytes. I can’t help but think that Joy — though it’s better than Silver Linings Playbook — is where audiences will finally concede that the magic is wearing off.

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