Joy (2016)

★★★★

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Joy PosterDirector: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez

Hey, look. Another film starring Jennifer Lawrence and another star turn from Jennifer Lawrence. The can-do-no-wrong actor is back alongside Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in Joy, all three under the familiar guidance of director David O. Russell. This is better than their last collaboration, American Hustle, solely because it pits Lawrence in the driver’s seat. It’s not better written, nor better shot. It is simply better shepherded by its central player, whose is clearly one of the best performers cinema currently has to offer.

She plays Joy Mangano, a multifaceted individual struggling to keep her domestic life on the straight and narrow. Her grandmother Mimi (Diane Lane) narrates in parts, telling us about Joy’s childhood and what the youngster had before divorce sent things by the wayside: family, pets, love, a non-idealistic attitude (“I don’t need a prince”). Now a grown women, Joy still doesn’t need a prince nor is she an idealist, but the inventor could do with a degree of leeway in terms of luck.

Mum Terri (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with television, unwilling to interrupt her bed-based viewing for anything apart from the bare essentials. Like the lone passive smoker living in a cigarette guzzling household, you can see the obsession rubbing off on Joy. In Terri, O. Russell seems to be highlighting our inherent desire to live vicariously through others, and why this can be both good and bad (which is rich coming from a movie). We learn early on that Terri’s TV-induced laziness -cum-ineptitude meant she failed to get her daughter a patent for a potentially profit spinning invention years back.

See, Joy is an inventor. At least she should be. Unfortunately, her house has taken the form of a hotel for relatives. Whenever she visits her father’s (Robert De Niro) vehicle repair shop, the ideas woman walks past men taking aim at empty glass bottles. It’s as if her dreams and aspirations are shot to pieces every time she spends time with her family: Joy does the washing; Joy does the plumbing; Joy does the bedtime reading; Joy does the cooking. Joy even has to mediate verbal jousts between dad and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Home life is a mess.

And yet there isn’t that same underlying darkness present in O. Russell’s latest offering that was there in, say, The Fighter. This threatens to leave the story hanging, particularly during the opening hour when the family shenanigans bear a fun streak despite boasting life-halting ramifications — heck, Joy and Tony are “the best divorced couple in America”. Lawrence does wear exhaustion well though, allowing only brief bursts of spark to shine through. It is obvious that Joy is the level-headed one, admirably unshowy despite having the intuitive capacity to back up any arrogance. The rest of them are oddballs.

De Niro’s recent filmography doesn’t exactly reflect his irresistible earlier stuff, but he does work well alongside present company. The veteran is as good here as he has been in a while, snarky and showing pinpoint comedic timing. Tony grates a little, especially when we see him in his basement setting without any character depth towards the start, but he fares better as the film advances. He is a singer and, like Joy, the screenplay wants to protect him — O. Russell has penned a celebration of creativity after all.

The film trundles along appealingly, though without too much in the way of bite or real depth. That changes in the second act, when the Miracle Mop takes shape and sales pitches are invoked. Cooper turns up as a distanced TV exec with more business acumen than generosity. Energy levels heighten as he shows Joy around the QVC studio. The piece comes to life and starts to really feel like a David O. Russell production: Melissa Rivers barters before our eyes as her late mother (uncannily by the way); words suddenly have urgency; a western twang sounds out; the camera swoops left and right as ringing telephones carry the frantic calls of seduced customers.

Real life Mangano has the spotlight but the film is really an amalgamation of many exceptional tales (“Inspired by true stories of daring women” are the first worlds we see on-screen), and as such you sometimes get the sense our central character is too good to be true — when she needs Miracle Mop personnel, Joy hires a bunch of female immigrants and turns her father’s male workplace into a sort of gender-balanced haven. Lawrence absolutely makes it work though: like her character’s family, the camera relentlessly pesters the actor, worried it might miss a moment of her brilliance.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is crisp but the film does parade an idiosyncrasy in the way it is structured. We get flashbacks that serve to fill some life gaps, but then there are these silly dream sequences dressed up as episodes of a melodramatic soap opera. They feel more suited to American Hustle than Silver Linings Playbook, and given Joy falls tonally on the side of the latter, the sequences don’t really mesh well with the surrounding drama and are ultimately superfluous.

Like American Hustle, it is a film that ages well; certainly, there were moments that had me feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing, but then it won me over and continued to do so even hours after the credits had rolled. Sure you can telegraph certain plot points, but you aren’t really paying for plot: you’re paying for Joy and Jen. The movie is about a functional mop. Isabella Rossellini appears as a bonkers love interest. There is a hotel room standoff involving a guy wearing a cowboy hat for goodness’ sake. What’s not to like?

Joy - Jennifer Lawrence

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox