Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Movie Review: Joy

Directed by:  David O. Russell.
Written by: David O. Russell and Annie Mumolo.
Starring: 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), Elisabeth Röhm (Peggy), Susan Lucci (Danica), Laura Wright (Clarinda).

David O. Russell is a talented filmmaker – but one that increasingly seems to be flailing – overloading his movies with empty style, while they lack in ideas. This is odd considering his earlier films like Three Kings (1999) and I Heart Huckabees (2003) – which remain far and away his two best films – were films that were bursting with ideas. But since The Fighter (2010), Russell seems content to play around a little bit with studio films, made for Oscars, and aping the style of Martin Scorsese – without ever quite getting underneath the surface of things. True, The Fighter was better and deeper than most inspirational sports movies, and Silver Linings Playbook was better and deeper than most romantic comedies, but both were still fairly safe movies, no matter how well executed. American Hustle was a confused mess – an entertaining confused mess to be sure, but one where a bunch of good performances, garish style and good individual scenes, didn’t really add up to much. Joy is even worse – mainly because so much of the movie is just shrill and disagreeable. As a portrait of dysfunctional family, the film falls flat. As a story of a strong woman, pulling herself up by her bootstraps the film works slightly better – particularly in the QVC scenes, which nearly save the movie. But despite a committed performance by Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role – once again in a role that really calls for an older actress – when the film is over, I didn’t really feel like anyone involved really understood her character – or what the movie was all about.

Lawrence stars as Joy – a single mother of two, who works constantly, but is always poor. She lives in a house with her two kids, her mother (Virginia Madsen), who spends all day, every day, watching the same soap opera in her room and her grandmother (Diane Ladd) – who has always told her is destined for greatness. In her basement lives her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), who she is better friends with than they were as a couple. And now, her father (Robert DeNiro) is also moving in – having been thrown out by his latest wife. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. And then, Joy comes up with a great idea – which she calls the Miracle Mop – a mop that you wring out without touching it, and then throw the head into the washing machine, to clean it. It is a great idea – and she gets the seed movie from her dad’s newest girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) – but she cannot sell it. It isn’t until she gets on the new network QVC, run by Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) that things take off.

For much of the movie, the film is little more than another portrait of a dysfunctional family – something Russell himself excelled at in Flirting with Disaster, but does nothing with in Joy. All of the characters are caricatures – and fairly monstrous ones at that. It’s hard not to think the film is rather cruelly mocking most of these people, seeing them all as either pathetic (Madsen), cruel (DeNiro, Rossellini) or both (Elizabeth Rohm, as Joys half-sister). The early scenes are tough to watch – and not in a good way.

The film finds its footing when it reaches QVC – which Russell portrays as an almost surreal world unto itself, with Cooper as a character who is both sleazy and charming – it’s actually some of the best work Cooper has done. For her part, Lawrence keeps the movie watchable in those early scenes – she is trying in vain to create a realistic character amidst all the chaos. Her transformation in the third act into a badass business woman is a little sudden (I’m thinking more of her confrontation in Texas more than building her own company).  It’s as good of a performance as could possibly be expected in a movie this confused. The film doesn’t really see anyone as a realistic character, which hampers the talented cast – with really only Cooper and Lawrence escaping unscathed.

Joy is never boring – as always, Russell overloads the film with style – cribbed from Scorsese, so the film has a lot of energy. But the film doesn’t go anywhere, and doesn’t really seem to know what it’s about. Russell is a talented filmmaker – but Joy is a major disappointment.

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