2015/ USA

Director: David O. Russell

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper

Words: J. Wood

The partnership of David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence continues to bear fruit but of the three films they, alongside Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, have made together, this one is the most inconsequential.  Why this is the case is less certain, because put simply this film had me gripped throughout, had me engaged in the characters and their situations yet at the same time the jigsaw of the film did not feel at any point like it truly came together, and tonally the film really is all over the place.

The situation of Joy at the start of the film makes for some great comedic situations that, if I am being wholly honest were not fully utilized by Russell, a director usually very good at bringing wry comedy to the forefront of his works.  There is a weird David Lynchian verve underpinning the whole third act, as Joy’s aimless mother (Virginia Madsen) watches a ridiculously trashy Dallas like TV soap almost constantly, into which the film takes bizarre flights of fantasy.  This David Lynch connection is only strengthened by the participation of Isabella Rossellini and Diane Ladd.  The film does a good job of constructing a situation that could so easily fall into totally inappropriate farce, as Joy finds herself sharing a house with her near bedridden mother, grandmother and two children, as well as having her father and her ex-husband sharing the basement.  This first act is when the film worked best as a whole unit for me, as Joy’s desperate situation becomes apparent and is handled with surprising maturity by Russell.

As the second act is reached and the film becomes less about a woman fighting against all odds to stay afloat despite having the weight of her entire family’s survival on her shoulders, and more about the ‘nominal’ subject Joy Mangano and her invention of the ‘Miracle Mop’.  The film purposely tries to leave the more comical and fantastical elements of its opening act behind to become a much more straightforward drama, which is not a wholly terrible decision to have made yet for some strange reason it is not followed through totally, with the comedic elements not wholly disposed of and in most cases, most notably Virginia Madsen becoming besotted with a Haitian plumber, they stick out like a sore thumb.

As a visual exercise the work of Tim Burton appears to be quite a huge inspiration, as many shots are framed in a very Burton-esque way, looking up at close up shots of the actors framed against a silhouette of light are very Tim Burton.  In fact, not only this fantastic work by cinematographer Linus Sandgren but also the recurrent snow motif, strangely detached narration by Diane Ladd and the film’s infrequent flights of fantasy or extended flashback sequences have more than a touch of Tim Burton’s work about them, albeit in a more grounded narrative.

Anchoring the entire film and to a great extent preventing the whole narrative from crashing down around the central character is a performance by Jennifer Lawrence that although nothing out of the ordinary for this extraordinary actress is still a perfect anchor for all the weirdness and absurdity surrounding her throughout the film.  Whilst indeed the film proves to be a more than adequate arena for her to prove just how good she is at showing resilience on screen, especially towards the end as she confronts a Texan businessman in the movie’s one scene of real tension, a scene owned by Lawrence in an out of character moment, the real strength to her performance here is the opportunity given to her to be wounded and broken by her life, or indeed the fabulous moment where Joy is star struck as she takes to the QVC airwaves.  

The QVC scenes are the film’s most consistently great;  written as a pastiche of sorts on the old studio lot based Hollywood, Bradley Cooper is the best of a strong supporting cast in a surprisingly small role as the channel boss, in awe of the place, treating it as his own studio, constantly regaling his audience with tales of David O. Selznick and Jack Warner, he really makes the audience believe that he believes he is their equivalent when really he is just a jumped up delusional, albeit one who it is fairly easy to warm to thanks to Cooper’s charm.  The rest of the supporting cast do good if less showy work, and it is a pleasure to see De Niro’s continued collaboration with Russell as he is the only one who can get something resembling the De Niro of old to the screen and, given that ‘Dirty Grandpa’ is out soon, that is a real blessing.

The narrative of Joy is a rocky road but it is a real success that Russell makes a convincingly feel good ending from the opening act.  Joy is not a bad film; it is just not a film I can quite pin down.  The whole thing just feels slightly jumbled, as if all the components are there just not necessarily in the right order, hence taking some of the effect of the film away.  Worth seeing as a piece of well thought and acted film making, but a lesser film in the David O. Russell canon.