There’s a scene in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook in which Bradley Cooper’s bipolar character Pat apologises to Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany for his conversational style, explaining that he has “no filter”. The same might very well be said for Russell’s approach to his new film Joy – the portrait of a woman named Joy Mangano who went on a rags-to-riches journey trying to sell her newly invented Miracle Mop – though here it applies to the film in its entirety.
Joy is played by Jennifer Lawrence, frequent flyer with Russell’s recent features, as are Robert De Niro (Joy’s father Rudy) and the sadly marginalised Bradley Cooper (here playing QVC director Neil Walker). The film wonkily follows Joy through the burgeoning process of starting up an enterprise based on her mop design while facing the tough challenges of being a single mother with a nightmare family.
Taking on both writing and directorial duties and given the clout of a string of commercial successes, it’s evident Russell has had free rein here, casting from his pool of favourites and indulging in whatever whims take his fancy. This isn’t always a good thing. Some auteur directors have a focused, clear vision for their work and the results feel fully formed and satisfying. Russell once showed great promise for this, but has since pissed it away in favour of increasingly trite populist drivel (see career nadir American Hustle). The last of his films to feel like it was truly ‘his’ was I Heart Huckabees in 2004.
Joy is chaotic. It begins using onscreen text and (unspeakably bad) voice over narration, dips pointlessly in and out of a fake soap opera watched by one of the characters and zips back and forth in time during what is ostensibly one big flashback with no discernible modus operandi. Structurally it feels awkward. It’s messy. Russell’s dialogue has never felt more laboured and dumbed-down, as he frequently – nay constantly – removes any reason for the audience to do any work. Subtext comes blurting out of the characters’ mouths and plot points and exposition are dropped like boulders in the middle of scenes. Joy feels frantic the same way I Heart Huckabees did, but without that film’s sense of intention. The whimsy there rubbed some people the wrong way. That side of things now grates against Russell’s earnest attempts to quell those impulses in favour of more consumer friendly fare. It feels as though he’s at war with himself.
The film suffers as a result. Every scene in which Joy contends with her family feels contrived and awkwardly staged, as though we’re viewing the rehearsal scenes from Birdman, except this time it’s supposed to be the real deal. De Niro doesn’t fuck it up, which is a small mercy, but elsewhere nobody rings true. An almost unrecognisable Virginia Madsen feels like a sketch character more than a mother, and the same might also be said for Joy’s basement dwelling ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramirez). Add Isabella Rossellini to the mix as Trudy to De Niro’s Rudy (yep) and you’ve got a series of cramped scenes in which, like Joy herself, you’re stifling the urge to scream.
And that makes up about half of the picture.
In a sense Russell is onto something here, because as a viewer you absolutely side with Joy’s exhaustion at the rabble of human car crashes swarming around her. Trouble is as a viewing experience it’s grating. Everything feels embellished. Joy is based on a true story, but one senses that Russell has been overly creative in bending that truth to his unformed purposes. The film does see him turning a corner and trying to find himself again, but he’s in painful transitional territory at this point, and it shows.
For nearly an hour then, Joy looks set to supplant American Hustle as Russell’s biggest snafu, but thanks to the concerted efforts of Jennifer Lawrence and a significantly charming bit of work from Bradley Cooper things just about sail through. While Joy flounders in domestic settings, it soars when it narrows focus to its titular character. Lawrence is as eminently watchable as ever here. We feel her grit and determination, and as such she carries us through the rockier scenes. Getting invested in her ambition becomes a no-brainer. The film reaches its peak when she takes her product to QVC in the hopes of getting it on the air.
It is here, in the middle of the film, that you can see what a good director Russell is when he’s focused. He presents the shopping channel workspace as a wonderland for Joy, and it’s genuinely fascinating to encounter. Cooper and Lawrence have a forgone chemistry which crackles once again, and everything seems like it might work out for the movie. Unfortunately, it’s merely a diamond in the rough, and by the end Russell’s back to piling in awkward gimmicks and laboured family arguments in order to round out his story. Again Lawrence helps us rise above the dross, and her scenes sans family toward the end buoy things back up some, but the damage has been done. Throw in a ham-fisted flash-forward that feels painfully out-of-place and there’s your movie. Do you feel satisfied?
Yeah, I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to Russell, but I genuinely want to see great work from him again. Joy isn’t going to be the movie that turns those tables. The story here is interesting enough without all the cluttered distractions that have been hung from it. Less would’ve been so much more in this case. Or, at the very least, some sense of unity between the scenes. As it stands, this is a half-good picture hampered by so much distracting clutter.