Originally being a fan of his work, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that’s been slipping and slipping in my opinion. Everybody raved about American Hustle as it started pulling in awards nominations but I was left wondering what everybody was seeing in this film. Sure, it has interesting performances but nothing that could be called stellar and the movie leaves your mind as soon as the credits hit the screen. There’s also an ugly and persisting rumor that David O Russell is not a very likeable guy. We heard those stories about his interactions with George Clooney on Three Kings and there is that infamous video of Lily Tomlin on YouTube from I Heart Huckabees getting berated by Russell. I also must remind myself that Stanley Kubrick was notoriously difficult to work with and he’s the greatest. Cue debate.
Now, the question heading into Joy is can Russell pull out of the tailspin I see him going into? There’s no doubt from the trailer that Joy is beautifully shot. Once again teaming up with his favorite leading lady Jennifer Lawrence, the Silver Linings Playbook director knows how to shoot his apparent muse. We have now established that there is style to Joy but is there substance to this film he describes as being a true story based on successful and powerful women?
The first step of the film is to show our titular character (Lawrence) as a woman pinned under more responsibilities than she should have to handle. She’s a divorced mother of two with her ex husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) living in their basement and her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) constantly sequestered to her room. Tony makes a meager living singing at a local restaurant and Terry is an agoraphobe who lives to watch her daily soap operas and Joy carries the burden of the entire house on her shoulders.
To make matters worse, her love seeking father Rudy (Robert Deniro) is kicked out of the house of his latest fling and forced to move back in at the family house with them. The only saving grace for Joy is her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) who believes that Joy is meant to be much bigger and better than she is, a powerful matriarch. Over a series of interconnected dreams, Joy comes to believe this as well, realises her own power and has a creative epiphany.
Joy’s brilliant idea is to build a self wringing mop, which she puts every fibre of her being into making it a reality. After enlisting some investment help from her father’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini, where the heck has she been?), Joy begins the manufacturing process, which eventually, through Tony’s help, leads her to QVC, later to become the Home Shopping Network. With the help of Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive at the network, Joy hopes to make the intentions of her grandmother come to life.
That earlier question I asked about if Russell could pull out of that decline in his work? Yeah, to quote my friend and fellow critic Josh Cabrita’s first text to me after his screening, “Joy ain’t good”. The film is so muddled in the direction of the narrative straight away that it’s hard to appreciate how gorgeous it all is. I was left trying to formulate a liking for any of the characters besides Joy herself, because, as it’s written, we’re only supposed to care about her and nothing else.
I was also baffled to why this is being touted, at least by the director himself, as a strong female empowering film. This is really only felt for fleeting moments during the second act of the film and the whole third act feels incredibly easy and dumbed down towards the audience, like that the logistics of the problem was solved of screen and we aren’t privy to any of the information. It almost feels like David O. Russell cheated us.
Now, as I am writing this, the film is getting awards praise, at least from the Golden Globes, and, again, I’m feeling like I missed something that everyone else is seeing. This movie is an pretty sorry mess punctuated with visual highlights. Am I to assume that this nomination comes so the Hollywood Foreign Press can get Jennifer Lawrence in the room as the “it girl” right now? It’s happened before, remember The Tourist? That film certainly didn’t deserve any recognition, well, save for maybe the Razzies.
With his name being bandied around in the conversation of great modern directors, David O. Russell’s last two films need to be addressed as accidental misfires for him to continue with that prestige. The other modern greats of our time usually recover after a stumble but Russell stepped into a deeper quagmire with a very unlikeable film in my opinion. I give Joy a low two out of five.