Director David O. Russell and actor Jennifer Lawrence have cultivated a fruitful working relationship over the past few years, beginning with ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012), for which won Lawrence her first Oscar. While the films have been of varying quality, their partnership has brought out the best in both of them. With ‘Joy’, that collaboration is taken to the next level, Lawrence stepping into the title role in a film that places enormous demands on her. However, even with a talented lead, a terrific supporting cast and an ambitious concept, do Russell and his latest film have the skill to keep all the balls up in the air?
‘Joy’ follows the life of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), a single mother of great ambition who is rallying against the pressures of her difficult and demanding family, including her unstable divorced parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen) and her own ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez). When she comes up with an idea for a self-wringing mop, she sees a way to step out of her crushing lifestyle and hope for herself and her children, especially when television executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) promises to help promote her invention on television. However, the road to success is a treacherous one, and Joy finds the battle to stand on her own far more difficult that she could have predicted.
Russell’s ambitions and intentions with ‘Joy’ are admirable, but in execution the film ends up a bit of a mess. Joy herself is a tremendously engaging character, but surrounding her are a collection of repulsive, negative characters whose only function seems to be to stand in her way. A combination of unending bad fortune and horribly obvious cliché makes the screenplay a bit too ridiculous to connect with, its episodic format making it hard to put the pieces together and work out what the point of the film actually is. It’s either a complex observation about human nature or a woefully simplistic statement that "strong women are great", but if the latter is the case, the film can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that this is a male voice talking about the female experience. ‘Joy’ might be about "strong women", but it is pervaded by a consistent masculine voice, one that makes what could have been genuine seem disingenuous. Thankfully, the film itself has some craft to it, with Russell at his best in the quieter moments where his overwritten and idiosyncratic screenplay don’t get in the way. The visual look of the film is certainly its technical strongpoint, lifting the kind of magic realism of Frank Capra into a modern context.
It’s hard to properly assess the supporting cast though. There’s little doubt they’re all terrific, but they take on such a horrid collection of frustrating and negative characters. If anyone shines the most, it’s Isabella Rossellini as Trudy, Joy’s main investor and her father’s girlfriend. She’s delicious to watch and utterly repulsive, and this would be great if the rest of the characters weren’t as equally unlikeable. If there’s one reason to see ‘Joy’ though, it’s for Jennifer Lawrence. For all the film's failings, she gives arguably her finest performance to date, detailed and focused, and driven by powerhouse energy. It’s little wonder, as the film was clearly fashioned around her, but while Russell hasn’t made himself look particularly adept with ‘Joy’, he certainly has allowed Lawrence to show her stuff. She’s utterly magnetic to watch, and the film really sings with her terrific scenes with Cooper, making the second act of the film easily its strongest.
Even though ‘Joy’ is a messy, unfocused and (at times) horribly clichéd film, there’s something strangely watchable about it. I’m not a fan of David O. Russell’s films, and this one certainly isn’t him at his best, but I found myself far more willing to revisit it than any of his other films. Most of this is probably due to Jennifer Lawrence, who leaps over the flaws in the film and concocts something strangely magical. This is definitely a case where a great central performance has saved a film, and there’s no doubt ‘Joy’ would have been a much lesser film without her.
Even though ‘Joy’ is a messy, unfocused and (at times) horribly clichéd film, there’s something strangely watchable about it.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Joy’ was shot on 35mm film, and the 1080p 1.85:1 transfer captures all that beautiful natural film grain and detail. The film has a very washed-out look, but the high definition transfer maintains the artistic integrity of the image, maintaining the colour scheme and excellent clarity. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is likewise excellent, modest in its punch but keeping an excellent balance between score, sound design and dialogue. A 4K release is apparently on the way, but for now this is an excellent presentation of the film.
There’s a small but solid collection of extras included on this disc. ‘Joy, Strength and Perseverance’ (20:21) has Russell and the cast discussing the themes of the film, but while Russell offers some interesting observations about the symbolism of the film, it ends up being mostly a retelling of the narrative. It further highlights how unfocused a film it is, and with Russell explaining a number of his artistic decisions, how unsuccessful the final film was at communicating its intentions. ‘Times Talk with Jennifer Lawrence, David O. Russell and Maureen Dowd’ (1:07:42) is far more successful, a conversation conducted by Dowd with Lawrence and Russell, covering their working relationship and the film itself. The disc also includes an image gallery.
‘Joy’ is out today on DIGITAL HD and on Blu-ray™ & DVD April 28. Get it here on iTunes.