Monday, 28 December 2015

Joy review

David O. Russell's surefire Oscar contender recently hit a wall of critical negativity, and things aren't looking too god for either him, or his impressive cast. Read on after the jump to find out what I thought of it.

David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence finally did it. They hit the wall. They made a movie that hasn't been received well by critics, and whose recent American opening has pushed the film's RT score lower towards 50%. If it drops below that, it'll be considered a failure. Which is a shame; I've always admired Russell's films. In fact, I see him as a more accessible PTA - a compliment indeed. Doesn't mean to say that audiences have always loved him. Oh no: most of those I spoke to following American Hustle were disappointing to say the least. I loved it. And Joy isn't bad either. If you want to know what it's like, watch the trailer. It perfectly sums up the antic confusion and tonal ambiguity of this movie. 

A powerful performance
David O. Russell is clearly doing what he does best: creating an emotional response. American Hustle was the perfect evocation of time period. Stellar cast and twisty story aside; the music, sets, and aesthetic of the film made it feel quintessentially 70s. Once again, it's the same thing that Paul Thomas Anderson does so well, especially in this year's fantastic Inherent Vice. What it also means, however in the case of Joy, is that story is secondary. You can tell this by the dream-like trailer; or the statements from the marketing department. Joy is supposed to be an emotional roller coaster about the American Dream. Instead, for me, it felt like a tame fairground ride in comparison. Not that that means it's a failure. Tame fairground rides can be fun; but I'd have preferred the white-knuckle thrill ride nonetheless...

We'll get to the first half an hour later, but the story after this focuses on the rise to fame of Joy Mangano. Mangano invented the miracle mop (before hundreds of other inventions), and flogged it herself on the new burgeoning QVC shopping channel. Suffice to say she overcame the obstacles of a patriarchal world to become a millionaire and a symbol of success. Russell is, however, wary of his story. Unlike the mop, it doesn't sell. The (semi) serious-drama-about-the-creation-of-a-mop isn't gonna cash it in at the box office. He appreciates Mangano, but he also avoids her in favor of an arty direction. And, you know, that's okay. But what feels a little off is that (to me at least) Russell seems to want to talk about Joy's story. But he feels he cant. So instead makes a David O. Russell movie.

The hallucinogenic first act
Instead, he blends the real life story of Joy with some weird fictional elements. First of all there's the narration from her grandmother, who dies midway through the film. Her narration also cuts out for a large portion of the film; quite rather this was intended or not remains a mystery. And then there's a strange framing device: a soap opera. The soap opera appears to be set all in one room; and has the tone of Twin Peaks. It's about a family, and to me suggested that Joy's 'dynasty' had parallels with a Mafia crime syndicate. In any case, it pops up as a running motif; and when it does, you can never be sure quite what you're going to get. I wish Russell had made more use of it, but hey ho. And then there's the things that he wouldn't have known: the plumbing issues in her house; the weird-ass investor woman; business details of her dad's garage; and all the dream sequences we get. They're nice, and have technical skill, but just make the film a massive jumble.

Add to that the hallucinogenic first half-hour, in which swirling cinematography and enigmatic sequences (is that real or not?), and you have a pretty weird film. So there's the problem that most critics have had. It's not that Joy doesn't look good, or work well in pieces. It's just that it's too cluttered to work on the level it should. And, you know, I think we could have had a great film. A really great film. If only Russell had thought about the script and reworked it a bit. Took some stuff out, and added some stuff in. If he wanted to keep all this dream stuff, we're talking a 3 hour movie. And I could handle that. Both the Revenant, and the Hateful Eight are approaching that; so it's by all means acceptable.

It's in the final sections that Joy becomes more of what I expected to be. We're on side with our main protagonist, and every astounding lift of morale brings a crashing defeat. And I mean every time. Until, finally, we receive an amazing climax. A climax that feels satisfying, and wonderful, and - you know- joyful . We are given a taster of the rollercoaster we were promised, and it felt good. There's just not enough oomph in the bulk of the movie.

Some great cinematography
And it's not for lack of trying. It's been said before, and I'll say it again: Jennifer Lawrence gives an incredible performance. She really does. It's intense, and mature to a degree well beyond that of any normal 25 year old. A scene in which Joy storms out of the garage and into a firing range is one of the most powered and convincing scenes of this year. And the other performances are great; they would be even greater if Russell gave them any heft. He doesn't. He's so preoccupied with Lawrence (may I remind you of American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook), that he actually forgets about the rest of his characters. Which is a bit of a shame. But hey, it's a character study.

So there's Joy. It's dreamy, obscure, and beautiful. It evokes time and place, as well as being stylistically secure. And, at times, it can be genuinely emotional. Yet it can't fully succeed: it's too uneven, and Lawrence is the only star who is given enough attention. It is, truly, a wonderful mess.
Joy gets 3 stars!

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