David O. Russell appears to have finalised his “dream team” of performers over the past few years and his common denominators are apparently Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Both actors have partnered with the highly respected writer/director for his past few films, once in Silver Linings Playbook and again in American Hustle. It’s difficult to say just what sort of creative spark is conjured when these three storytellers collide, but the result has a track record of great success and that track record does not end with Joy.
Written and directed by five-time Academy Award nominee Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings), the movie is based on the true story of Joy Mangano (Academy Award winner Lawrence; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past), a young divorcee who has sacrificed much of her dreams and ambitions in favour of caring for her destructively dysfunctional family. Primary caregiver to her aging grandmother, agoraphobic mother, jobless ex husband and two young children, Joy struggles to keep it all together, especially after her father (two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro; The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull), who has enjoyed an extremely spiteful relationship with her mother since their divorce, moves in with them after his second wife leaves him.
One day, after cutting her hands attempting to rinse out a mop she’d been using to clean up a broken glass of red wine, she has an idea. A tinkerer since childhood, Joy obtains an investment from her father’s new girlfriend Trudy (Golden Globe Award nominee Isabella Rossellini; Blue Velvet, Crime of the Century) and sets out designing and manufacturing a mop of her own design, an enterprise that threatens to destroy her both financially and emotionally.
Joy is successful primarily because of how easy it is to root for Joy. Lawrence’s performance is incredible and she manages to portray tired and world weary and determined and hard working with equal flair, and the script does everything it can to make the audience sympathise with her. Her family is absolutely terrible (with the exception of her ex husband, grandmother and children), treating her like dirt and generally taking advantage of her good will to an infuriating extreme.
De Niro, Rossellini and the others are playing characters oblivious to their own awfulness, prompting the audience to immediately connect with Joy. Rossellini in particular is especially irritating (by design, not through fault of the actress) as the blindingly egotistical Trudy, who is constantly waffling on about the art of commerce and business and generally addressing Joy as if she were an unintelligent Golden Retriever rather than a human being. The odds are stacked against our heroine, but the most damaging obstacles are the people closest to her.
The film does a good job of setting up its characters, helped along by a copious amount of flashbacks early on in the proceedings, and it hits its emotional beats hard. There are some real gut punches in this movie and Lawrence nails these heartbreaking moments with consistent aplomb. But Russell never fails to lace some ironic humour through the proceedings so things never get too dour. It’s a fine line to walk, both for Russell as a writer and for his cast who have switch tones in very subtle ways, but they all pull it off admirably.
Four-time Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper (American Sniper, The Hangover: Part III) doesn’t make his appearance until the end of the second act; he is in the movie very little. His character could never have been incorporated into any of the earlier scenes, but it’s hard to wish that he wasn’t since he and Lawrence share the film’s best moments.
Cooper’s performance here is another impressive entry in an increasingly enviable resume, and he’s the only performer that comes close to matching Lawrence in their scenes together. The two have an incredible chemistry and they’ve displayed an uncanny ability to channel that spark in different directions depending on the role. Their dynamic here is entirely new and their scenes together are some of the movie’s most dramatically intense.
The film’s biggest flaw is the same as most movies based on a true story. Russell struggles to locate an appropriate time frame for the film to be set in, forced to employ poorly distributed flashbacks to establish exposition and failing to find a proper exit point to role the credits at. It’s a problem few biopics successfully solve, for the simple and unavoidable fact that real life rarely has a beginning, middle and end.
As a crutch, Russell also employs the tired trope of having one of his characters narrate the proceedings in order to skip large swathes of time, and establish smaller details so things can move along more quickly. I’ve grown to really resent this narrative device, and it’s very poorly utilised here, coming off as lazy and unnecessary. It’s also not assisted by the events of the movie themselves, which make the narration particularly odd and confused as the story plays out. The implication of that narration becomes increasingly disparate in tone to the rest of the film.
Joy is a great film, bolstered by Russell’s superb eye for dialogue and the truly magnificent performances he coaxes from his cast, especially Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The film’s pacing is hurt by numerous exposition dumps and flashbacks and the narration stands in opposition to the rest of the movie tonally, but as a whole Joy is another wonderful deployment of one of the most successful partnerships in 21st century cinema.