Jennifer Lawrence gives it some gusto in David O Russell’s tonally uncertain dramedy
It’s a testament to the strength of his talent and vision that David O Russell is readily regarded as one of today’s greatest filmmakers, despite the fact that he has made just seven features in the past two decades. With topics ranging from the opportunities of war (Three Kings) to the exquisite art of the con (American Hustle), Russell’s screenplays demonstrate a colour and eloquence that are expertly serviced by his masterful direction. It’s an exemplary body of work that sets a very high bar; one which his eighth film (discounting the disowned Accidental Love), the screwball drama Joy, struggles to reach.
Hollywood’s golden girl and regular Russell collaborator Jennifer Lawrence stars as real-life entrepreneur Joy Mangano, a young mother struggling to cope with both her dysfunctional family and mounting debt until her invention of the Miracle Mop turns her life around. It’s a fascinating story but, as a film, lacks focus and momentum, playing more like a creative experiment than a finished product.
In his highly-dramatised telling of Mangano’s story, Russell has weaved aspects of the traditional and the fantastical. The film is framed by a fictional soap opera, and such OTT elements bleed into the narrative; most notably in the form of Isabella Rossellini as Trudy, the wonderfully extravagant girlfriend of Joy’s father Rudy (Robert De Niro). Attempting to convey the haphazard nature of Joy’s rags-to-riches journey, Russell never satisfactorily nails the film’s tone and, at times, it proves a distraction.
While Lawrence is arguably too young for the role, she is a good fit for such an interesting and inspiring character and embodies Mangano with gusto. Unfortunately, almost everyone else is reduced to caricature, and worst off is De Niro as Joy’s clown of a father, whose detrimental influence on his daughter is reduced to a combination of buffoonery and unbelievably selfish soliloquies. Virginia Madsen has more to play with as Joy’s needy mother Terry, but has nowhere near enough screen-time.
Only Bradley Cooper, as QVC boss Neil Walker, really holds his own against Lawrence, and their scenes at the then-fledgling shopping channel are standout moments. The dramatic and artistic choreography at play when Neil is demonstrating the machinations of the channel and, later, when Joy sells her mop on air give glimpses of Russell’s ambition for the film. In the latter, we finally see Joy stripped of artifice; passionate, articulate and dedicated, she showcases a breathtaking intensity of emotion as her motivation and drive finally take centre stage.
General release from Fri 1 Jan.