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It’s hard not to compare Joy—the latest from David O. Russell—to another heavily anticipated holiday film, the also female-first name-titled Carol. Both O. Russell and Carol director Todd Haynes are directors who turn filmmaking into spectacle, and storytelling into remarkably precise art. Joy, however, is a film that’s remarkably proud of its own existence, and that it features a star. What Todd Haynes does so well is immerse his audience in time and place to such a degree that the world feels real. And this isn’t a call to realism. It’s sort of the opposite. It’s a world building—a creation—rather than an adherence to life. Haynes creates a world so fictitious and so precise that it seems as if it happened—we all just forgot about it. Its artifice is a certain type of naturalism. Joy on the other hand, never quite commits to any sort of tenor. It’s heartwarming moments are undermined with irony, it’s braver moments littered with clichés. The film collapses under questioning and examination, seemingly thrilled that it exists at all, and that such a magnificent leading lady is calling the shots. And this is why Joy is not nearly the valuable piece of entertainment O. Russell’s greater works can be—although a revisit towards his filmography reveals something less than we make it out to be.
Joy starts as the sort of domesticated dramedy Russell has been crafting for some time now. A few critics have stated that Joy is the end of a trilogy, preceded by Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). The three are more simpatico to one another than they are his earlier work, but all vary in quality, with American Hustle far stronger than the two it’s sandwiched between.
In Joy, we get lots of yelling between Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) and her various family members. None of these characters elicit a smidgen of sympathy from the audience. Her ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez) is the most relatable character outside of Joy, yet he’s constantly thwarted by Joy’s father (Robert De Niro) and his new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), who’s equal parts evil and insufferable. Joy’s mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is helpless and hapless, banished to her bedroom to watch a soap opera O. Russell created himself and thrusts into the role of misplaced metaphor. The film thinks far more highly of this half baked trick than it should. Joy’s grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd)—her most avid supporter—spends her time as narrator straight out of a bad Christmas movie. She’s equal parts moralizing and winking. David O. Russell can’t quite decide what he wants this character—or the film, for that matter—to be.
It’s hard to like a film in which all of the characters are undermined in hopes of propping up its star. And this may be the point of the film: To highlight Joy’s strong character and American Spirit. But it feels more like a vehicle for David O. Russell to ogle at and celebrate his muse, which, for over two hours, grows to be both tiresome and uncomfortable.
That’s not to say that this film is devoid of fun. Russell’s mediocre work is better than most of the crap put into theaters. The camera moves fast, the characters faster. It’s clear that this director really cares about the work he puts into the world. It just so happens that this particular work isn’t very good.
Words are spat out at a rapid pace as mini sequence after mini sequence stack atop each other. Some scenes stick, most don’t. Joy shooting a gun, though for no real narrative purpose, is lots of fun. The scenes with Bradley Cooper as QVC (home shopping network) boss Neil Walker are boisterous—a film within a film. These are the film’s most obviously reflexive moments, although the entire film title could have been summarized with a more explanatory title: Joy: Played By Jennifer Lawrence, A Star. It’s O. Russell telling his audience, “Look! Look at how much fun making a movie can be!”
The plot fails to cohere time and again, as the script is remarkably uninterested in adhering to a certain tone or pace for more than ten minutes at a time. This breakneck strategy has worked for Russell before, although his greater works don’t represent the sort of shambolic mess this thing ends up being. American Hustle (2013) is a slapstick affair, a caper for the modern era. All rambles and chaos, excess and overdose. But that method only works when each sector of narrative is interesting and precise. Jennifer Lawrence is the only enjoyable part of Joy (she’s great).* The rest just isn’t much fun to watch. Her family is mean, selfish, and unsupportive.
The film also lacks an interesting or engaging soundtrack. American Hustle thrived as a musical—songs directed action in a thrilling way. It begins with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) discussing the exultant joy of Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues.” The film reintroduces ELO to the world with a perfectly placed “10538 Overture,” and the film’s most famous scene is set to and built upon “Live and Let Die.” Silver Linings’ entirety leads to a climactic dance-off. Joy lacks any of these moments.
Joy is lackluster in nearly every area, except for in pointing out what a few folks are starting to realize: Despite all of the Oscar sheen glossed upon David O. Russell’s megalomaniacal face, he’s far more often miss than hit. Go watch Three Kings and appreciate this thing for what it is: A wonderful Jennifer Lawrence and a bunch of nonsense.
*I wrote this before Jennifer Lawrence called out a non-native English speaker for reading a question off his phone during a Golden Globes press conference (and incorrectly calling the event The Oscars), but this sort of bullying reflects poorly on the film’s only bright spot.
Rating: Don’t See This Movie