Drama Film Review 2016: "Joy"(Written/Directed by David O. Russell, w/ Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro,Bradley Cooper)
Jennifer Lawrence. Robert De Niro. Bradley Cooper. If those three names strung together illicit strong feelings of caffeinated energy and inspiration as the bells resound in your mind recalling their last (and best) David O. Russell collaboration "Silver Linings Playbook", you are certainly in for quite a treat. "Joy", a film loosely based off of 1990's American inventor Joy "Miracle Mop" Mangano, is a curious enterprise altogether because the subject matter seems almost out of left field. Consider this: O'Russell has never, in his near two-decade career crafted a biographical film before. His genre trajectory has included an adventure film ("Flirting With Disaster"), a war picture ("Three Kings"), a philosophical mood piece ("I Heart Huckabees") a sports drama ("The Fighter") a romantic comedy ("Silver Linings Playbook"), and a prestige crime film ("American Hustle"). The less we say about his mangled, absolutely bonkers, tonally dissonant and horridly disorienting "political comedy" that he affectionately once called "Nailed" the better. Point being: why now? And why Mrs. Mangano? Surely O'Russell isn't about to play it safe and offer us something far less existential and more chronological in presentation and technique. The good news is that the trailers were misleading in making this out to be an Awards bait movie filled to the brim with quip-riddled bantering from our leading and still-reigning Hollywood "IT" girl Lawrence whose carefully calculated choice in roles has emblazoned her as the toughest chic in Tinseltown. By no means an instant classic, this latest muse-driven film is surprisingly heady and you'd be unfortunate to head to the bathroom at any point in between.
Initially, I'll say it is one of the most dialogue-driven films O'Russell has ever conceived. The movie spends a solid part of its early duration establishing place, time and character development as we are immediately introduced to grade-school aged Joy as she constructs a rather intricate playhouse that's a total paper mache wonderland. Her grandmother, portrayed graciously by Diane Ladd, explaining in v.o narration remarks that these early growth spurts and interest is what ultimately spun Joy into the confident, whip-smart and take-no-prisoners entrepreneur that she'd later become. O'Russell shoots these scenes, and many others, with a vivid, high-resolution wonder that permeates through the frame and succeeds in pulling you into Joy's world. Her orbit starts out small - her misshapen family consisting of her divorcee husband living in the basement of her house (a suave but broken Edgar Ramirez), her soap-opera obsessed mother (an unrecognizable Virginia Madsen), her opportunistic and vengeful half-sister and her curmudgeon of a father (Robert De Niro). O'Russell expertly lays the brickwork here and emphasizes that Joy's cantankerous family life served as further motivation for her meteoric success. When the film isn't being very expository which, at times, becomes belabored to the point of excess, the technically accomplished and vivid world to which these character's populate is something out of high-fantasy and makes you divert your attention elsewhere until the movie finds its footing.
One of the most surprising elements of the movie is that, much like the recent Danny Boyle-helmed Steve Jobs biopic and the Brian Wilson musical docudrama "Love & Mercy", "Joy" does not really retain a sense of uplift at all until perhaps the last act of the movie. The through-line of Joy's narrative is rather depressive throughout and follows a particular pattern: misfortune occurs, her family tries to rectify and it backfires, Joy gets a new inventive idea that bubbles instantaneously into her head and, lastly, fueled by anger and frustration with people being undependable causes her to track down the men/women responsible so that they can get their comeuppance. In no small way, the film fills its cookie-cutter mold but the heavyweight drama with little signs that our protagonist will triumph make "Joy" curiously watchable and, in many facets, unpredictable. Lawrence, it appears, is the living embodiment of the 21st century independent female. Not only has she ushered in and anchored two franchises - "X-Men" and "Hunger Games" - her criticisms regarding the sizeable pay disparity in Hollywood and the regular workforce that she became a mouthpiece for using Lena Dunham's feminist upstart magazine Lenny Letter have been taken truly seriously for the first time in awhile. When Patricia Arquette, winner of the Best Actress Oscar for 2014's "Boyhood" incorporated that into her stump speech, it fell on deaf ears. Lawrence can be considered an overnight success - much like Mrs. Mangano whose fast track to super stardom blindsided her friends and, most especially, her vigilant competitors. The casting decision for O'Russell was natural. As compelling and important-sounding as Lawrence is throughout, her performance is rather one note. Thankfully, this film's supremely talented and diverse supporting cast make up the difference.
De Niro, much like he did in "Silver Linings Playbook" really shines as the blue collar businessman Rudy and father of Joy. We meet him at his lowest point when he gets kicked out by Joy's sister in law and is forced to co-habitate in the basement with all but a roll of toilet paper separating him and Joy's ex-husband Tony. De Niro's Rudy displays shades of complexity we've rarely seen pined from the actor in his later-period roles. Gone, hopefully, is the one-joke sleepwalker of the "Meet the Parents" franchise so here's hoping his continued bromance with O'Russell continues. Cooper, interestingly enough, doesn't appear until the end of the second act at the most confrontational summit of the film when Joy makes a last-ditch trip to QVC (short for "Quality", "Value", "Convenience") television station in the hopes of marketing her newly-minted mop to worldwide audiences. Cooper's Neil Walker, at first is a smarmy but very direct Executive who dismisses Joy's mop as "cheap-looking" and that he only picks products to showcase that he knows absolutely can sell. When Joy aggressively shows him an informal demonstration to illuminate the ease and utility of the device including its replaceable 300 cotton-curled head, his eyes flicker and light ablaze and gives her a chance. At this point, the movie really ascends to near-classic status and longtime screenmates Lawrence and Cooper effortlessly play off of each other and bring the best they both can muster into the fold. Fortunately, too, that there is not a hint of romance or even remote attraction between the two characters which I found refreshing. Essentially, strictly business and the film continually thrives as a result. Cooper, in a role-reversal from his prior few movies, plays a man of unflappable confidence and poise but not in the cocky, devil-may-care persona of his "Hangover" days. The rest of the cast - Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Melissa Rivers (cameo as her late mother) - all equally bring the necessary gravitas and authenticity to the story. Even veteran soap-opera star Susan Lucci shows up doing what she does best in some fantasy sequences that run parallel to the movie's primary arc.
O'Russell seems to have made the most of his resources for this film. Clearly his budget was expanded as he was able to utilize the now fairly routine digital de-aging technique in the flashback sequences to make De Niro look like his "Casino"-era self. Conversely, in the film's modern day scenes for the epilogue, the characters were aged believably. The film really only suffers early on as some exposition-laden fat could have been trimmed and several of the transitions and time-hopping could prove to be troubling. O'Russell still proves to be a signature talent and an auteur who never ducks and hides from a challenge but instead plows right on through it.