The backlash against David O. Russell is strong. Such can be the ire of fanboy cinephiles when you morph from the idiosyncratic young voice behind unique films such as Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees into a respectable director of Oscar-friendly fare such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Nowadays, Russell is regarded as a empty auteur. A guy who has nothing to say, and is content with riffing on Scorsese to satisfy his filmmaking needs. “I can’t imagine it being anything but terrible”, said a friend of mine when he saw an advertisement for Russell’s latest movie, Joy.
The straw that broke the camel’s back -and young cinephiles’ goodwill toward Russell- seems to have been the moment when American Hustle scores a surprisingly high number of Academy Award nominations. Ten, more than any other movie except Gravity, including one in each of the four acting categories. Sure, American Hustle had some good moments, but ten nominations? People who had complained about its thematic emptiness, and its superficial similarities to Goodfellas were enraged. Russell had become a hack.
Joy, Russell’s biographical drama, which stars frequent collaborator Jennifer Lawrence as the woman who made a fortune after she invented the Miracle Mop, transformed in a couple of months from presumed Oscar front-runner to a movie that wasn’t even “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. In that sense, the movie has encountered the same kind of adversity that its protagonist must face from a group of friends and family that disregard her as a failure, and her ideas as a bored housewife’s way of passing the time. It seems like it’s going to be hard, at this point, for Joy, the movie, to overcome these obstacles the way Joy, the character, does, but here’s hoping, because this is a much better movie than most people are giving it credit for.
It’s not a perfect movie. I can’t decide if what it really needed was another re-write on the script or another pass on the editing bay, but neither of those things would’ve hurt. As he did with American Hustle, Russell has re-written another writer’s script -in this case “story” credit goes to Annie Mumolo, best known for co-writing Bridesmaids– and there is a clear dissonance between the movie’s amount of kooky stylistic ideas and the development of its main thematic concern: the story of an ordinary woman’s struggle to become extraordinary.
This is unquestionably Jennifer Lawrence’s movie. She gives the most impressive and magnetic performance of her career. I am not a huge Lawrence fan, and her previous work with Russell leaves me particularly cold, but something seems to have finally clicked in this instance. Still, even if Lawrence is the shining center, the movie is overflowing with supporting characters. From a plot and story level, very few of the supporting players get the perfect amount of screen time.
A couple examples. Isabella Rossellini plays one of Joy’s main investors, and while Russell gives her a gratifying amount of freedom to play her character’s crazy quirks, she pops up throughout the film more as an obstacle than a character.Meanwhile, Diane Ladd narrates the story as Joy’s grandmother, but the movie doesn’t spend much time with the relationship outside of setting it up at the beginning, and coming back for an emotional moment toward the end. Because there was little development, the moment isn’t as powerful as the movie wants it to be.
There are so many things going on in Joy. The script is not quite as chaotic as American Hustle‘s, but it shows that Russell has developed a soft-spot for overstuffing his films with characters. He has also developed a quite exceptional skill at handling ensembles. Friend of the blog Nathaniel Rogers observed that Russell is the rare director who can take many different styles of performance and make them feel at home in the same movie, and he is completely right.
Russell also seems to provide actors with fertile enough soil to cultivate their performances. This sometimes results in the unmeasured bigness of Melissa Leo in The Fighter or the baffling choices of Christian Bale in American Hustle, but it also allows the supporting players to make an impact when an impact is needed. I’m thinking in particular of Dascha Polanco, who plays Joy’s childhood friend, and very economically sells some of the movie’s most emotional moments.
There are quite a few interesting things going on in Joy. First of all, we have a truly touching story about a woman making it big in a man’s world. This is not a post-feminist individualistic parable either. Joy encounters as many haters and nay-sayers on her way to the top as she does collaborators. Particularly interesting on this front are her relationships to two very attractive men. Edgar Ramirez plays Joy’s ex-husband, who begins the movie as a slob who still lives in her basement two years after the divorce, but ends up becoming a trustful ally.
Similarly, Bradley Cooper plays an executive who helps Joy sell her products on television. Before signing the contract, he warns her that the nature of the business could have them become adversaries in the future, and suggest making a point of, above all, remaining “friends in commerce”. Outside of the flashbacks that show us how Joy met her husband, she doesn’t have a romantic relationship with either one of these men.
The movie’s strongest decisions come in the character relationships. That is why I’d argue for an edit, because the strength of the relationships shine through the fact that the amount we see from each character is off. It expertly captures the many emotional pulls within Joy’s life. The pull of belonging to a family, the pull of wanting to be successful, the pull of being told you aren’t worth it, and the pull of believing in yourself. The movie conveys that the decisions Joy must make are not easy.
Joy is a touching story because it’s complicated. This may seem, at first glance, like the story of a woman forcefully stomping around and showing all these men how it’s done, but it’s really about a woman working hard, believing in herself, and finding trust and collaboration in her allies. This is not a movie where the main character is always right and her enemies wrong. The characters that surround Joy are more complex, her journey bumpier, and the movie she stars in more interesting.