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

The King of Comedy (1983)

★★★★★

The King of Comedy PosterDirector: Martin Scorsese

Release Date: February 18th, 1983 (US limited)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis

From the moment Robert De Niro’s eccentric autograph-hunter Rupert Pupkin hops his way inside the limousine of talk show host Jerry Langford, The King of Comedy sizzles with motor mouth-induced panache. This isn’t the cynical nor the blunt outing that we have come to expect from Martin Scorsese. Instead, it is a light entry into comedy hall of fame, one that flaunts a relevant satirical backbone and a truly impervious performance from the director’s right-hand man De Niro. Proceedings are aided by a snappy screenplay, energetic direction and brisk editing, but this is absolutely a one-man show. Elements of subtle psychosis are explored through the pitfalls of rejection but, at heart, The King of Comedy is simply journey of hilarious wit, De Niro its perfect driver.

Rupert Pupkin’s (Robert De Niro) dream is to become a successful comedian plying his trade on a personal talk show. He spends many a day persistently practising routines and his evenings glued to the rear entrance of stage-doors, impatiently awaiting the signature of a celebrity (you get the sense anyone will do). Upon receiving a bout of half-hearted vindication from Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and a less than half-hearted promise that Langford will consider his talents, Rupert believes he has finally achieved the break he has been after. Only, the aspirer’s ambition far outweighs his common sense.

Robert De Niro has never been funnier. Rupert exists on the opposite end of the mentalist spectrum from Travis Bickle, though De Niro portrays each persona with equal amounts of verve and precision. Just like Travis, Rupert demands our utmost attention and more, though this time it’s as a direct result of an incessant need to talk his way into and out of every situation. De Niro effortlessly channels a man who always appears to be precariously teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, yet someone who still retains a peculiar air of discipline. His mannerisms are exceptional, displaying the actor’s decisive comedic timing. Interactions with Jerry’s receptionist are particularly sterling, not to mention an awkward card reading scene that encapsulates Rupert’s mantra: purposeful without structure. The film is less interesting when De Niro is absent from the screen, not because the remaining elements are poor, but because De Niro’s presence is simply that enticing.

Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay scorches with immensely delivered dialogue. It throws up a satirical funny bone that harbours the on-going effects of celebrity obsession, on both the obsessive and those being obsessed over. Rupert is an in-over-his-head autograph collector (“The more scribbled the name, the bigger the fame”), but his problem is a far greater one: he’s a frenetic attention-seeker. If it’s not a woman, it’s a talk show host, or even a wall covered in painted figures resembling an applauding audience — the latter is one of the film’s most disconcerting and telling moments, echoing the infallible pitfalls of rejection. Though admirably gag-full, The King of Comedy also ushers in an eerie strand that strikes an even greater nerve as we learn more about our wannabe comedian. For a split second, the culture of mania becomes humane.

We begin to feel sorry for Rupert, who is ignored by all those whom he admires. When Rupert sees the walls in Jerry’s office are painted red, desperation asserts that he wears a red tie during the next visit — anything to impress. The film encourages us to get on board with a man who feels hard done by in life and who subsequently uses this as justification to overbear. Rejection manifests in similar forms to those of modern denial; “company policy” loopholes, an assistant reverberating condescending tones and emitting dissociative remarks. There’s no doubting De Niro’s impact in terms of making his character user-friendly, but credit must also go towards how Scorsese and company present the character. After all, it’s easier to engage and spend time with somebody who you like, as opposed to a person less cherished.

At its most rampant when De Niro is in view, The King of Comedy peaks by way of the humour expelled. Believing the hype — mainly his own — Rupert exclaims extraordinary fact after extraordinary fact in such a nonchalant manner that we begin to wonder whether or not they’re actually true (“That’s Woody Allen… he’s a friend of mine”). Other amusing sequences include Rupert’s uncanny resilience that sees him consistently refer to strangers by first name as if on a first-name basis — he’s a bit like the annoying drunk seemingly frozen in time and on repeat. Even his attire is so silly that it garners laughter: from the uncoordinated suit and tie to the pristine hair and questionable moustache. Listen out for De Niro’s dynamite “MAM!” too.

It’s blatantly obvious that Scorsese cares about his characters, particular his lead here whom he treats with affection and injects with more well-roundedness than is custom for such a psychotic individual. This caressing nature is reflected in the film’s overall image, one far from the brutal shades of grey seen in Goodfellas or the not so subtle shades of black and white in The Wolf of Wall Street. Typical of Scorsese, The King of Comedy does arrive in tandem with an inert pizazz, though not the glossy kind seen in the aforementioned outings, but rather an artificial glamour mirroring the inauthentic essence of show business on display. Proceedings rumble as they near the inevitable and dramatic conclusion, which sees an utterly outstanding monologue that tows the line between funny and pained. It’s the golden bow on a succinctly wrapped present.

The other performances range from very good to decent. Jerry Lewis is Jerry Langford, a man devoid of any cheer despite his lofty position in comedy. Ironically, the same spot a lively Rupert vies for. Though he plays the quintessential victim, Lewis’ pinpoint dismissive delivery assists in spinning the traditional roles. We cannot help but side with the guy who is trying his damnedest to etch some semblance of enthusiasm from his successful counterpart. Sandra Bernhard isn’t quite as effective as Rupert’s fellow maniac Masha, though her character suffers from being too one-dimensional, an issue increasingly flagged up in the presence of a well-rounded Rupert. In fairness, the pair display quite the frazzled dynamic when together.

Though it’s not as scoping as many of his other outings, The King of Comedy is definitely one of Martin Scorsese’s best and most intriguing. Spearheaded by Robert De Niro doing his best funny-man-cum-insane impression, the outing spawns diatribes of electricity and opts to stand out from the crowd of convention. “Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

The King of Comedy - De Niro

Images credit: IMP AwardsThe Guardian

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

American Hustle (2014)

★★★★

Director: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 20th, 2013 (US); January 1st, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner

“Some of this actually happened.”

These are the first words you see on screen as American Hustle rolls along the runway in preparation for a turbulent take-off. The next thing, an obtuse, balding Christian Bale spends a good few minutes chained to mirror, meticulously attempting to glue hair to his head. And it’s brilliant. One minute the film is poking fun at itself, the next it’s indulging in extended Hollywood grooming. Whether or not you actually believe that any of what is to come actually happened is irrelevant. Batman is fat and bald. Only he’s not Batman, he’s the first of five characters who, placed in any other film, could easily be dismissed as unlovable. Yet these characters, these jaded and faulting human beings are the epitome of most things great in American Hustle — and trust me, most things are great.

After a string of loan scams gone right, con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught cheque-handed by exuberant FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Along with a reluctant Sydney, who is posing as a Brit with banking connections, Irving is manipulated into joining DiMaso in a plan to take down four potentially corrupt political figures, including the well-meaning New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). If Irving does not oblige, he fears the loss of his adopted son from his marriage with an uncontrollable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

First thing’s first: American Hustle serves up an abundance of heart to go along with bountiful amounts of razzmatazz and wild hair-pieces, and this is no small part down to David O. Russell’s focused direction, a direction particularly zoned in on his characters. Since making The Fighter in 2010, Russell has admitted that people are the most important elements of his films, that they infuse soul into his work, and this is certainly true here. At best the plot is slightly overloaded, but then it probably should be given the elaborate scam unfolding on screen. Russell deflects all attention away from these various narrative layers and strands though, and gives his characters the limelight. Unselfishly too — this character-based production style is something that doesn’t always necessarily invite directorial attention, rather the actors take most of the plaudits. However Russell’s passion for people, which is as much on display in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as it is here, means he most likely doesn’t want all the plaudits no matter how much he deserves them.

It’s not often that a truly A-list cast amalgamates where each actor delivers a tip-top performance. Normally, either there’s not enough material to satisfy so many hungry egos, or a severe case of weary cheque-collecting goes on. This could not be further from the truth in American Hustle, as the five stars bring out the absolute best and most flamboyant in one another. As Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale is the centrepiece of events, the instigator of many of the crazy goings-on (whether he likes it or not). “He had this air about him.” Sydney is absolutely correct. At the beginning, you get the feeling Irving is growing tired of his surroundings, he’s let himself go but not so far as to come across as weak — what we see externally is carefully tended (the hair), what we don’t see is tucked away (the stomach). It’s not until the glamorous and vibrant Sydney Prosser glances over into his life that Irving experiences an ambience of regeneration. Adams embodies seduction; she mesmerises the viewer as much as she does Bale and it’s obvious her character Sydney (or is it Evelyn?) has had a lot of practice in hiding charmingly behind a veil of otherness.

Bradley Cooper, who put in a career-best performance in David O. Russell’s previous film, is astoundingly funny as Richie DiMaso. He has the 70s jumping off him: a curly perm, outlandish clothing and that wise-cracking demeanour, one which harks back to more serious crime outputs such as Goodfellas, and even Scarface. DiMaso manoeuvres in the opposite direction to that of Irving — he becomes too cocky, dragged into a world of madness. As American Hustle trumpets on, it becomes an electric game of one-upmanship between Irving, Sydney and DiMaso. Nobody really knows who is playing who. There’s an air of unpredictability about proceedings. All of this makes for more compelling viewing as the sentiment hanging-on-every-word becomes agreeably essential.

Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn is another firecracker in this celebration of absurdity and Jennifer Lawrence throws herself at the character. She delivers many of the funniest lines very well (“Don’t put metal in the science oven”) yet still manages to evoke heartfelt sympathy. It’s clear Rosalyn is under appreciated, struggles with demons and craves some consistent attention from Irving, or anyone really. To be able to stand on, and subsequently pull off, both sides of fence — the staunchly comedic and starkly vulnerable — is a testament to Jennifer Lawrence’s ability as an actor and storyteller. Newcomer to the David O. Russell school of actors (perhaps the coolest club going in Hollywood) is Jeremy Renner, a welcome addition. As Mayor Polito, Renner is more likeable than ever in a very different role from those he has partaken in recently. His outrageous facial expressions during a sing-a-long with Bale is a standout moment.

Harking back to David O. Russell’s preferred filmmaking style, behind all of the madness, these characters still feel like real people (they listen to each other’s phone calls in the other room for heaven’s sake). None of them really want to be where they are. Perhaps they are wearily sucked in, or can’t seem to find a way out. Better lives, that’s all they’re after. They create attractively unattractive personas in order to acclimatise to the anarchy. Yet you still want to love them in the end. Unlike the plot, which arguably outstays its welcome, not one single character does.

The saying ‘never a dull moment’ has rarely been more fitting. Everything here is so over the top and brash. When names such as Carmine Polito and Victor Tellegio are sprayed around, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of entertainment on show. There absolutely is a sense of indulgence, but it’s more than simply self-indulgence, rather a communal kind between filmmaker and audience. A conversation about coriander and perfume smelling like “flowers, but with garbage” essentially sums up American Hustle: it sort of doesn’t make sense, but the circus-like pandemonium makes the film great because it allows people to thrive and evolve.

I left the cinema thinking American Hustle was a good film, and many hours later it is still growing on me. There is a good chance it will for a long time. It’s euphoria and desolation. Furious and funny. Organised chaos which descends (or ascends) into disorganised chaos. Somewhere along the way, Bradley Cooper, in his most vociferous New Yoik accent says, “You might even get sick of me!” He could be referring to the fabulous five on show (or six, if you include David O. Russell).

If so, honestly Bradley? Not in the slightest.