Sunday, December 27, 2015

JOY Is a Great American Epic In Search of A Plot

 JOY Review:

- On paper, JOY seems like it's got the goods to be another successful David O. Russell / Jennifer Lawrence collaboration. But in practice, this one - while it has its moments - lacks the energy and momentum of Russell's recent films. Say what you want about Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but both of those movies zoomed along with a constant barrage of sharp dialogue, visual fireworks, and quick-moving plotlines. JOY, on the other hand, feels like a would-be epic in search of a plot that can actually fill its over-two-hour running time. There just doesn't seem to be the raw material here with which to craft the Great American Story that Russell seems to be grasping for.

JOY tells the true-life story of Joy Mangano - a woman of modest means from a working-class Italian-American family. As a child, Joy was a dreamer and a maker of things - her doting grandmother was sure, and told her repeatedly, that she was destined for great things - and Joy thought so too. But then, life got in the way. Joy's father left her mom (his second wife), Joy got married young to a Venezuelan sometimes-singer, had two kids, and then got divorced soon after, and Joy got stuck living with her soap opera-obsessed mother and grandmother cleaning up after their messes. Also, her father and ex-husband moved back in - both live in the basement, even though they hate each other. Joy sees no way out of the less-than-ideal life she's fallen into, until one day, she strikes upon a spark of inspiration. After injuring her had while mopping up broken glass, she comes up with the idea of a self-wringing mop. It's a simple but clever idea, and Joy sees it as her ticket out and onward to a better life.

The first part of JOY is a lot of fun. Russell tends to be at the top of his game when he's directing scenes of rapid-fire comedic banter - and that's exactly what we get as we're introduced to Joy's dysfunctional family. Robert De Niro in particular is in top form here as Joy's dad. De Niro kills it as the owner of a body shop who, despite living in his ex-wife's basement, has quite the active dating life. Virginia Madsen is also really funny as Joy's homebody mom, content to stay curled up in bed all day watching her soaps. Out of the gate, it's a lot of fun just spending time with Joy's wacky family.

There's also a really well done sequence in which Joy pitches her Miracle Mop to the then-fledgling QVC shop-from-home TV station. Joy's astonishment at the TV studio, coupled with Bradley Cooper (as QVC head Neil Walker's) enthusiasm for the on-the-rise operation, makes for some really entertaining moments.

The problem here is that the interesting part of Joy's story is essentially over once she finds success through QVC. After that, there's lots of manufactured drama about finances and patents - but the emotional arc of Joy's story is already long-complete. The larger problem lies in the fact that Joy's story is a good one, but it's also a fairly simple one. And Russell seems to struggle to find the right angle with which to elevate it into a sprawling cinematic parable. Seemingly as a way to overcompensate for the lack of meat to this story, Russell layers in a lot of overlong music-set montages of Lawrence's Joy strutting her stuff and looking really determined and ready to take on the world. By the fourth or fifth time we've seen Joy dramatically put on a pair of sunglasses as if to say "yeah, I'm a badass now," well, we sort of get the point.

And so, it's up to the always-great Lawrence and the excellent supporting cast to really carry the film with their performances. Lawrence gives it her best shot - and she really is great. She makes potentially throwaway moments - like Joy grabbing a shotgun and doing some impromptu target practice to get out her aggression - memorable and iconic. But Lawrence does actually feel a bit miscast here. Joy as written seems like she's got to be someone worn and tired and aging. But Lawrence has too much youthful spunk and energy to be 100% convincing as someone who's had to raise two kids and two parents on her own. Still, Lawrence makes even the movie's draggiest scenes at least watchable, so there's that.

I will mention though that one of the best supporting cast turns here is Isabella Rossellini as Trudy - De Niro's new special lady friend, a rich widow who Joy hopes will be an early investor in her mop. Rossellini is hilarious here - playing a woman who increasingly reveals herself to be a left-of-center oddball, with all sorts of out-there ideas from her late husband about the cutthroat nature of business. 

JOY starts off pretty strong, but it loses a lot of momentum as it goes. It's clear from the beginning that this is a story about female empowerment and about how, with grit and determination, anyone can make it in America with the right idea. But I kept waiting for another spin on these ideas, a twist, turn, or some ultimate takeaway that would cap the movie off with a profound exclamation point. But that exclamation point never really came, and the film ends with more of a whimper than a bang. JOY feels like exactly the *kind* of movie that David O. Russell wants to make. But it doesn't quite feel like the movie it should have or could have been.

My Grade: B

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