David O. Russell has wedged himself among a small number of directors who make critically acclaimed films which also find box office success. With past films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle winning over audiences and nabbing success during award season, one would assume a similar path for his latest film, Joy.
After seeing the trailer, I was interested in this movie. Not necessarily due to the trailer’s substance, because it was mostly vague (which I think is the best way to execute trailers), but primarily for two reasons:
1. David O. Russell is one of my favorite working writers/directors.
2. He’s got his new favorite trio back together for a third time (De Niro, Lawrence, Cooper).
General moviegoers, perhaps those who haven’t been accustomed to O. Russell’s previous work, probably wouldn’t gravitate naturally to this film. Not that there’s a reason they shouldn’t, it just doesn’t have an incredibly appealing premise at face value and most wouldn’t have a reason to go, were it not for the big names starring in the major roles.
Surprisingly, with this in mind, along with the stiff box office competition during the holidays (Star Wars TFA, mostly), Joy earned a reasonable amount in its first weekend.
Numbers aside, was Joy a good movie? Yes, I think it was.
Starting with the very first frame of this movie, O. Russell makes his directing presence known in a beautifully constructed shot. What makes him, and other great directors like him, good at what they do is the way a normal and often bland subject is injected with beautiful visuals by way of direction. This wonderful direction continues throughout the film, thankfully, and reminds us why O. Russell is a true talent at his craft.
Right off the bat, we are immediately introduced to the character Joy via the narration of her grandmother. Joy is a creator of things, an inventor of sorts. She’s been this way since childhood and has always held high aspirations for herself in the flurry of her imagination. Fast forward to adulthood and she’s suffering in a cramped home with several of her family members as well as her ex husband, living an unfulfilling life that is stressful and nowhere near what she had dreamed of as a child.
Her grandmother seems to be the most sane of her otherwise incredibly ridiculous family, and also the driving force behind Joy’s aspirations from childhood. She’s the only one who truly believes in Joy and is always reminding her what she told her when she was younger. We see a lot of Joy’s struggles as a single mother in this chaotic lifestyle – and I mean a lot. The first half of the film concentrates on these aspects of her life, mostly how she’s failed and not going anywhere particularly attractive. Until, finally, she has her eureka moment and invents something.
What does she invent? A mop.
Well, not just a mop, but a new kind of mop. A mop that no one had seen before. One that can be wrung out and adjusted without touching the head, and one that can have the head removed and thrown into the washer. Of course, we’ve all seen these now in present day, but this is Joy’s (the character) stroke of brilliance. Like I said, it doesn’t sound like the most appealing plot, but it’s portrayed in a very engaging manner, thanks to O. Russell and his cast.
Anyways, we go on a journey with Joy as she tries to campaign for her new mop and get it made/sold/etc. This is where the film really takes off and gets us interested. She has her trial and error, along with her victories, going up and down, up and down, on a high-strung emotional roller coaster. I was incredibly invested in Joy’s character, so I obviously wanted her to win in these challenging instances and become the accomplished inventor who she’s always sought out to be.
This, primarily, is where the film succeeds; it’s strongly focused and carried by that of the character Joy. Everything revolves around her battles and her determination to become something more than just a single mother – to rise above gender stereotypes and social ‘limitations’ and truly blow past her doubters (many of whom are her family members). Not only is Joy a great character, and one whom we want to root for, but she is also portrayed brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence.
I think at this point, it’s easy to say that Jennifer Lawrence is a powerhouse and a beacon of talent for her generation. She’s shown us she can do it time and time again, and this film is no exception. She will, without a doubt, receive an Oscar nomination for this performance. As always, she has no trouble dipping into each and every available human emotion with ease. She can be funny, powerful, heartbroken, angry, vulnerable and more in just a span of minutes.
What I love about her performance in this film is that literally every ounce of the film’s weight is placed upon her shoulders, yet she never feels out of place or as if she is over doing it. Not once does she flinch or misstep. In fact, she sinks behind the character and gives us something so very authentic that you often forget Lawrence is even the one acting. My favorite moment is one where she is simply staring into the mirror, with nothing else to lose, a plain face, with no apparent emotion being displayed, yet, somehow, we can see something behind her eyes, something deeply compelling and moving. It gives us one of the more powerful moments of the film, and it was never overacting, it was never even acting – she just exuded the character’s emotions in a subtle but brilliant display.
This is just one of many instances that can be found throughout the film which speak for Lawrence’s incredible abilities. Apart from her, the rest of the cast was solid. They played to their parts the way they should’ve, which was all they were given in the script. Typically, David O. Russell has a slate of characters whom are all fully fleshed out, but in this film, the characters alongside Joy are more like obstacles. Or, most of them anyway. When I say that, it’s not a bad thing. I believe O. Russell constructed the film to be that way. I think, unlike his other movies, he wanted it to embody one strong and interesting character who beats the odds, while the other characters aren’t there to have their own stories. They aren’t filler and they aren’t bland, but I think they are more shallow than some viewers or critics were expecting. I believe many critics’ problems with the film actually lie in the fact that the characters surrounding Joy were quite annoying. But, often times people mistake ‘annoying’ or similar qualities in a character as making a ‘bad’ character, when, in fact, it’s the opposite. The characters were written to be annoying. They were meant to be that way, it’s vital to the main character’s development. So, they’re effective characters doing what they are supposed to in the story. This being said, I really do believe that they successfully achieve what O. Russell set out to do, in that they’re the metaphorical fire beneath Joy’s feet. Honestly, though, I would’ve liked to have seen Cooper and De Niro with a little more substance than what they received. Either way, they performed well with what they were given.
The plot is, like I said, a very character-driven one. Without Joy, we have nothing, but that’s how the story was built to be. The first half of the film may be tough to get through for a lot of the general demographic, but if you stay along for the second half, you are treated with an entertaining and engaging story. I should note that there are some very messy aspects of the script when it bounces back and forth in time. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t. For example, what we saw of Joy and her ex-husband’s life together seemed like a strange and slightly awkward attempt to get us familiar with their relationship, desperately giving us a reason to care about them a little more. It didn’t really fit naturally into the movie, at least for me, and I think could’ve been handled differently, maybe through a much shorter and heated dialogue scene between the two of them – it could offer us just the right amount of insight without unnecessarily jumping back and forth in the timeline. At other times, when it showed us glimpses into Joy’s childhood, I thought it was mostly effective.
Another gripe I have is one with the actual delivery of the plot, which is by means of the grandmother’s narration. To me, it felt like O. Russell had that idea when initially writing the script and then he was sort of half committed to it throughout the rest of the movie after the introduction. It’s another thing I think the movie could’ve done without, especially since the grandmother seemingly plays a smaller part than the rest of the family, which is odd because the way it’s set up and narrated leads us to believe that she should play a much larger role. In relation to that, we are directly left with some emotional shortcomings later in the film, and a flaw in the concept of narration thereafter, which I won’t specifically mention since it’s a spoiler (let’s just say O. Russell breaks a writing 101 rule when it comes to narrators).
Overall, there are bumps in the script and pacing of the film, and some questionable uses of characters – like the mother, who I still don’t understand her purpose being in the film, since she didn’t play much of a part besides some obvious metaphors and comic relief – but I still left the theater feeling very satisfied. When all was said and done, the movie was handled with great craftmanship in the departments of directing, acting and writing. O. Russell cares for each shot that he is behind and it’s apparent to film lovers. The dialogue is quick, realistic and sharp, as we often expect with O. Russell’s writing. The acting delivers a heap of good performances, most significantly lead by the outstanding performance of Lawrence. We get an interesting look into the journey of a product’s concept being realized, patented, pitched and then sold like hotcakes on QVC in its early days. In a word, the film is inspiring. You’ll feel like Joy herself and you’ll want to go out and pursue your creative passions. You’ll just want to make something. You’ll want to do something big and ambitious. Really, that’s one of the best parts about a good movie is the palpable feeling it leaves you with afterward. Joy gives you exactly such a feeling, and apart from that, it’s another great entry into David O. Russell’s already impressive list of films.
Will everyone like it? Probably not. But it’s a well-made movie with good messages and an entertaining, interesting and inspiring story. Thanks to the great talent behind it, I’ll probably be watching it again soon to pick it apart.
Have you guys seen Joy? What did you think of it? One of David O. Russell’s best, or not so much? Let’s start a discussion in the comments!
Author: Austin Adams @IamAustinAdams
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