When it comes to writer / director David O. Russell, I’m firmly in the camp of someone who has supported and loved most of his work…. Until he got to the point where he started getting nominated for awards left and right. I love his films like Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, I’m not super crazy about I Heart Huckabees, but I still appreciate what it’s doing, and Three Kings is a straight up masterpiece. But, then The Fighter happened, and it’s not bad, it’s just standard stuff that you wouldn’t expect from such an idiosyncratic filmmaker. However, with the release of Silver Linings Playbook, then American Hustle and now Joy, it seems like he’s gone from making films that are fascinating, thoughtful and funny with a unique voice to making lifeless, indulgent and derivative awards bait with so little going for it that you barely remember any of it after seeing it the first time.
Joy is loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, an entrepreneur known mostly as the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular role, and we first see her as a woman burdened with an absurd amount of responsibility within her chaotic homelife. Not only is her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), just moving into the basement, but he will be joining Joy’s ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), who is also living the basement. Her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen) is practically glued to her bed while she watches TV all day, and her grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd) lives in the house. This is all while Joy is trying to raise her kids and keep her home afloat, until one day she is inspired and decides to go into entrepreneurship with her invention despite everything going against her.
Before the film starts, some words pop up, “Inspired By True Stories of Daring Women…One in Particular.” It sets up the film as an ode to women who were able to rise into business despite being largely considered a man’s world, especially within the time period that the film takes place in. The film is very well-intentioned and it does wear its heart on its sleeve, which I guess gives the film a bit of an edge over American Hustle. However, the film is nothing but frustration after frustration, and a lot of it is coming directly from choices that feel like modern David O. Russell doing his thing. I don’t mind the idea in theory about Russell focusing more on character relationships and dynamics, while keeping the plot as this blurry haze in the background, but given how plot-heavy American Hustle, as well as Joy are, it gets annoying sitting through tedious scenes where the context is completely gone and you don’t quite know what exactly is happening and why. Joy isn’t quite as infuriating in this regard, even if it is simply because a lot of the more surreal, experimental elements are almost exclusively in the first half. There are many moments of visual metaphors being played out that are so on-the-nose, that I can’t tell if this is the old David O. Russell trying to be funny or the new one trying desperately to get another Oscar nomination.
The second half of the film plays a bit more straightforward, at least whenever it doesn’t feel like the actors are just cutting loose. But by that point, it was so hard to really care about the things going on. Whereas the first half was like this pop-art wannabe with Russell continuing his annoying Scorsese knock-off tendencies recently, the second half was a bit more grounded and less experience/emotional based. The lack of a real direction for the storytelling is the ultimate failure of the film, and like with American Hustle, it leaves you with a long movie with that’s thematically incoherent, but full of big, broad performances whose appeal is based on each viewer’s individual tolerance level. I actually didn’t mind most of the performances, but it’s mostly because there wasn’t much to anybody. There’s little character to work with and the actors struggle to provide a fresh voice and idiosyncrasy to these people. At worst, a vast majority are lacking any real humanity, they act like cartoons and it makes it hard to get attached to anyone. The only one who comes across the strongest is, shocker, Jennifer Lawrence, who is able to get some mileage out of some bad material. I still don’t like that David O. Russell is casting her for roles that should be for women almost twice her age, but it is a bit hard to complain given how confident and committed her performance is.
I’m really curious as to what kind of film this would have been had the original screenplay by Annie Mumolo was used instead of Russell’s re-written script, which shoved Mumolo to just having a story credit. Because I think a lot of the issues I took with the film wouldn’t have been such a big problem had the film felt a bit more genuine. For a movie that is very upfront with wanting to be about the female experience and the harsh realities of women entering the business world, it seems odd that this story is being brought to us by a 57 year old man, not to mention a man who has been known to be very verbally abusive when making his film. He doesn’t make many choices in his filmmaking that I felt were appropriate or effective, I think this simply wasn’t his story to tell.
My bitterness towards David O. Russell might seem unfair, but it only comes from the fact that he started off making subversive, boundary-pushing films that all felt like they were exploring something with a unique point-of-view, and now he makes empty, lifeless fluff that just happen to be so well-made that is they just have to be the kind of movies that would get a ton of Oscars. All of the problems can be rooted in how Russell chooses to tell the story and it’s a series of strange decisions after strange decisions, which lead to moments of unearned pathos and no moment of genuine catharsis. Yes, you could say the sloppiness of its storytelling serves as a metaphor for the chaotic lives of the characters and the workings of their mind, but this is the fourth time he’s done this and it simply doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s a disappointment and Joy is another disappointment in Russell’s downward spiral. And to make things worse, Joy isn’t even that funny, so that plus the lack of dramatic resonance makes Joy kind of a joyless experience, and no amount of Jennifer Lawrence can help. I think the “Daring Women” that inspired this story deserve much better. 45 / 100