PLOT: The story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) who overcame adversity and the meddling of her own family to build a business dynasty.
REVIEW: David O. Russell is an excellent director, but as his films become more successful his style has moved away from the gonzo creativity of THREE KINGS and I HEART HUCKABEES into a more audience-friendly style that could be described as Martin Scorsese-lite. JOY continues that trend, with this being a fast-paced if ultimately artificial and cold feeling biopic. The only flashes of the old Russell come from his frequent cutaways to the soap operas Joy’s housebound mom (Virginia Madsen) are obsessed by, with vets like Susan Lucci playing themselves in deliberately tacky scenes.
Perhaps this is Russell’s way of preparing audiences for the artificiality of the film itself. Despite its basis in reality, this feels almost like a satire of old-fashioned melodramas, such as the ones directed by Douglas Sirk, albeit given a hyper-active speed and a soundtrack full of classic tunes – where Russell comes a little too close for comfort as far as paying homage to Scorsese goes, with him even using The Rolling Stones – a band Marty has a virtual monopoly over at this point.
For all the buzz around Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, JOY does not feel like an especially strong showcase for her. While she’s no doubt turned in exactly the kind of performance Russell wanted, the ‘big-ness” of it makes it feel like a total star-turn, making Joy less personable than she should be. Lawrence is also very young for the part, and scenes later in the film, where she’s supposed to be playing Joy in her middle-age, feel extremely forced.
Even still, JOY will likely nab Lawrence another Oscar nomination as she’s so beloved, but she’s been better elsewhere (I’d wager she turns in a far better performance in MOCKINGJAY PART 2). Lawrence’s isn’t the only one who’s over-the-top here. Robert De Niro’s positively manic as her doting father, who turns out to be something of a snake-in-the-grass as her product starts to take off. The same goes for Isabella Rossellini, who’s not that much different here than she is in Guy Maddin films as De Niro’s girlfriend and initial investor in Joy’s product. Of the main cast, the strongest and most natural performances come from Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s supportive ex-husband and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco as her likable best friend.
Highly-billed Bradley Cooper also turns up in a juicy supporting turn as the head of QVC – the shopping network that put Joy on the map. It’s easy to see why Cooper was attracted to the fast-talking pitchman part as it feels like a logical follow-up to his role in AMERICAN HUSTLE, but again, just like Lawrence and De Niro it feels like he’s playing a caricature rather than a flesh and blood person.
All this said, Russell’s clearly tried to make something other than the usual Hollywood biopic and by embracing the soapy aspects of it and emphasizing the artificial he’s made a unique film. However, it’s also a manic one and a tough thing to invest in emotionally, which is a shame as Mangano’s story is excellent. While JOY is nonetheless entertaining, it feels like an exercise in style over substance and for all Russell’s effort to give this a Scorsese-like epic feel, it lacks the intimacy of Scorsese’s own ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (in a nie nod to that film, Diane Ladd gets a nice supporting part). Obviously though, this is just one critic’s opinion and it’s possible X-Mas audiences will love O.Russell’s approach, but while it worked in AMERICAN HUSTLE, given how strange the actual caper was they were covering, this approach does not lend itself to a more intimate story.