David O. Russell is the kind of cat who is operating to the beat of his own drum. There is nothing wrong with this, the very idea of being a cinematic iconoclast is appealing in many ways. Three Kings was among the best films of 1999. The Fighter, just as strong, and Silver Linings Playbook showed a keen insight into the troubled lives of middle America. Then again, American Hustle was an incoherent mess.
Joy is a film which displays Russell’s work as an auteur, and one whose films have evolved to share similar thematic threads – essentially revolving around success and fulfillment, rising above your station. The American dream, basically. However, when all is said and done, it’s very hard to pin down exactly what Joy is. A biopic, sure. But it lacks focus, is tonally uneven and is wholly undisciplined. It is quite literally all over the place.
The very nature of the film’s tone, its plotting, its (at times) distractingly under developed characters raises the notion: specifically, who is this film for? Its opening title card announces it’s “inspired by the stories of daring women, and one in particular”. And that’s something – this is a story about a woman being determined, having ingenuity, moxie, pluck, all that, on her journey to go from struggling single mother to home shopping mogul. Great, right? You’d think so. But, no.
It’s significantly hard to pin down what the film actually is. One third is an uneven depiction of a dysfunctional family and a woman’s struggle to emerge from the crazy. One third is this rise to fame through home shopping. One third is – bizarrely – about patent law. There is, under the surface, buried somewhere between this end result of muddled vision, a great film; there’s a vitally important feminist text somewhere in this that four credited editors have somehow eviscerated. And while the film itself has been the product of significant montage, the one place that needed real trimming was the script. It takes a solid hour for it to get going, and when Joy finds her niche selling her mop on QVC, the piece comes to life. Only then does it unravel for its dénouement. And it employs a frustrating and vague voice over narration (a dead giveaway for a film lacking focus, or just lazy writing), plus repeated and twee, gimmicky flashbacks.
The third act meanders. The tone shifts. The pace goes off and almost all interest in the proceedings fades.
It’s not without its merits. Jennifer Lawrence is an utterly superb actor, without doubt the best of her generation. She absolutely owns every scene she’s in. Hers is the quintessential example of screen presence and she does everything she can to make lemonade out of what she’s been given. De Niro, again, he’s better than what he’s been given, and where Russell’s own Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (in a cameo) gave him opportunities to do among his best work in decades, there’s something missing from his work here – focus, nuance, perhaps. Bradley Cooper is persuasive and charismatic with his underwritten role. You can’t help but wonder what a better film it would be if the film was primarily about the dynamic between Joy and Cooper’s home shopping exec. There is probably a much more interesting piece there, although the truth of it might have been that there’s not enough story to make a feature from it. Other cast members, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen included, do what they can with the material. But it’s all just a bit … odd.
There is, floating around Joy‘s periphery, a sharp critique of American values: the stock placed in material possessions; the role of television as a soothsayer, goal, status symbol or escape mechanism; the notion that money won’t actually get you where you need to be. But these pointed observations are buried deep inside the bewildering execution. David O. Russell might be overflowing with cinematic vision, but he’s not letting us in on it. The film, enigmatic to a fault, is an interesting idea undermined by a fatally flawed execution.
There is a most unsettling irony about the fact that a film depicting the invention of a mop could wind up being such a mess.
Opens Boxing Day.