David O. Russell has become a frustrating director to watch lately. On one side, his films still have an affectious style to them — catapulted by the musical selection and the lived-in rapport between the group of actors that have followed him for his last three movies (specifically Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro) — but on the other side, he directs with a sense of arrogance and perceived knowledge as if we should accept that he knows what he is doing and go along with it without pointing out any flaws.
Russell is talented — there is no denying that — and for some of Joy, I was swimming in his swell of precise musical moments and cues alongside the give-and-take of Lawrence and DeNiro or Cooper as they’ve done before in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. But I also felt cold and dissatisfied with this latest film. Not because it was bad — because it isn’t poorly made — but because there was something missing from it that could’ve allowed for it to have really taken off and the frustrating thing is, I don’t exactly know what that is.
Joy follows the story of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), a single mother who invented the Miracle Mop and became the founder and matriarch of a business dynasty. Popping up along the way are her father, Rudy (DeNiro), who has left her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), and is now causing issues for a host of other women, including Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who also becomes an investor in Joy’s company.
But among all those other names, the star is the woman on the poster — Jennifer Lawrence — who carries herself with the charisma and pedigree needed to sell us on someone becoming a business mogul. In a very Al Pacino in The Godfather role, Lawrence commands the attention of the actors she is sharing the screen with as well as the audience as Joy digs deeper and deeper into the business world.
The clashes with her family and investors are engaging to a degree, but the real fun of the film comes from watching Joy face adversity and figure out a way around it. In one sequence, her mop is sold to QVC and makes its premiere on the shopping channel to a poor reception, mainly because the male pitch man had no idea how to work the device, which made it look inefficient and silly. QVC’s Neil Walker (Cooper) calls Joy to tell her the run is over. Without giving that answer another thought, Joy drives over to the office and demands that Walker allow her to go on TV to promote her own product.
This similar situation takes place again to conclude the film when her business starts to nose dive from within with both sequences showing the power of both Russell’s ability to write cause-and-effect scenes that have a trickling down over the course of the film’s running time and Lawrence ability to grab these sequences by the reigns and make them a commanding statement.
But, between those moments are ones that don’t quite work. While never bad, DeNiro and Cooper are one note characters who are there for the sole purpose of creating roadblocks for Joy. They are also variations on previous characters that they’ve played in Russell’s films, which is probably a pitfall of having a very similar cast each time out. Those characters are fun in the past, but there never seems to be a sense of diversity in Joy that makes you excited to see them doing this again or give you a reason to see this film as something new or different.
Instead, it is Bob DeNiro being a grunt of a man and getting in the way of Joy’s dreams and Bradley Cooper being a semi-delusional, kind of a punk executive who wheels and deals without much care for the effects it has on others. This is mostly reminiscent to Russell’s last film, American Hustle, which is yet another film where the writer/director plays with genre, but doesn’t really re-kindle anything new or challenging.
In Hustle, Russell was supposedly conning us throughout the film in a sort-of Scorsese-esque meta film that feels more listless and heavy-handed than Joy does. This latest film from the director isn’t as arrogant as Hustle, but stills demands your attention because of its re-birth of a dying genre (women’s pictures) and a re-imagining of the genre within the context of a female lead rather than the men who dominated these types of rise to power films in the 70s and 80s.
Much like with Hustle, Russell understands the genre and what he wants to do to “re-imagine” it, but he doesn’t make it his own. It seems like he feels that bringing his crew of actors on-board and re-working the script will make it a “David O. Russell version of (insert genre here,” but that makes it more of a class project rather than an actual fully-realized film.
Joy has its merits, and Jennifer Lawrence once again shows why she is a force to be reckoned with, but Russell once again brings the film down with his misunderstanding of the material. I can buy the idea that this is supposed to be a woman in a man’s role (ala the before mentioned genres of the 70s and 80s), but he also does nothing to say this is any different or worth seeking out.
Working within a genre (or even revitalizing a now nonexistent one) is fine, but just sitting behind those tropes and calling it your own is lazy. And the biggest problem with Russell is that he is not only lazy — he is also incredibly arrogant, which makes him more of a character in his movies rather than an actual filmmaker.