There’s something frustratingly inexplicable about Joy. It’s beautifully crafted by writer/director David O. Russell; the imperceptible subjective style allows it to overcome almost all of those biopic poison chalices; Jennifer Lawrence’s focal performance is dazzling; and yet, it’s disposable.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a promising intelligent young lady whose life takes a significant detour when she meets the love of her life. Fast forward to several years later, and her family has reached it’s most dysfunctional. Her now ex husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) still lives in her basement; her reclusive mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is bed bound and hypnotised by soap operas; and her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) who has been booted out of his latest relationship, appears on her door step. When an inventive epiphany strikes she pursues a ‘Hail Mary’ opportunity meeting Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) of the Home Shopping Network.
Writer/director O’Russell does a brilliant job at the beginning of the film to create a mind numbingly inane, black and white, soap opera that’s being mainlined by Joy’s mother Terry. O’Russell uses the device as the setting for Joy’s nightmare projections of her own family. At the beginning of the film it’s hypnotising her in discomforting but irresistible sleep.
O. Russell shoots Joy through the prism using the formal and thematic riffs on some of the most enduring classics of American cinema. In one of several scenes where her menagerie of a family have begun sabotaging her business ventures, Lawrence is gifted a sequence where she gets to call on the spirit of Marlon Brando from The Godfather. The camera leans in, above Lawrence seated in a large chair. Tilting her head, her body rigid and leaning in as she’s telling her half sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) never to speak on her behalf again. Lawrence’s intensity is devastating and yet gentle. There’s a fierceness and intent that almost peels the yellow beige paint off the walls. In a lovely dramatic echo O’Russell even finds Joy a ‘Rosebud’ moment.
Lawrence rejoices in diversity and challenge of the roles she’s crafting alongside Russell. She shows a beautiful patience with her maddening family; when she reaches the penultimate goal and the weight of her family’s and business partners greed she fractures and reveals a shaky vulnerability; however it’s when she looks inward, listens to herself and abandons the naysayers that her strength, intelligence and persuasive influence shines through. It’s a performance that’s so diverse that you feel she’s an assortment of characters along her journey instead of a fixed somebody.
Ramírez’s Tony has an amazing trajectory. At the beginning of the film you can’t help but think he’s an unforgivable loafer, pursuing his dreams and forcing his ex to be the family’s bread winner. As Joy’s story unfolds, Ramírez portrays Tony as the brace against the family’s impulse to pry Joy’s tenuous grasp of success out of her grip.
Cooper’s Neil Walker plays a fleeting but pivotal role alongside Lawrence. When you see how he responds to the magic in Joy, you swell with belief. After the Silver Linings Playbook, I feel like we the audience can’t get enough of Cooper and Lawrence interacting. De Niro, Rossellini, Röhm and the rest of the cast provide a serviceable backdrop to Joy’s incredible journey; but the ensemble is almost as inconsequential as the custom made soap opera leaving an impression on Joy’s mind.
For the all the uplifting and inspirational moments of Joy’s determination portrayed throughout the film, there’s an overwhelming sense of emptiness that we’ve ultimately watched a film advocating the American consumerist dream. Perhaps that explains that post ‘shopping network purchase’ vacuum in the wake of the credits. While it’s not a total success; David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence, please keep making ambitious films, together.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell (screenplay and story) and Annie Mumolo (Story)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright
Jennifer Lawrence … Joy
Robert De Niro … Rudy
Bradley Cooper … Neil Walker
Édgar Ramírez … Tony
Diane Ladd … Mimi
Virginia Madsen … Terry
Isabella Rossellini … Trudy
Dascha Polanco … Jackie
Susan Lucci … Danica
Laura Wright … Clarinda
Elisabeth Röhm … Peggy