Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell have made three feature films together since 2012. Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now JOY. It’s easy to see why, as O. Russell has directed her to 2 Oscar nominations, and one win. He also gives her the space to breathe, something she doesn’t receive in The Hunger Games films. While I’ve not always agreed with Lawrence’s casting in these roles (she’s way too young) she has delivered some compelling moments, even if it never amounts to a whole performance.
JOY, however, is O. Russell’s messiest film thus far, with Lawrence’s casting sticking out like a sore thumb.
JOY is very loosely based on Joy Mangano (Lawrence), the creator of the Miracle Mop. The film is narrated by Mimi (Diane Ladd), Joy’s grandmother, who tells us that Joy has been creating things since she was a young girl. *cue shots of young Joy (Isabella Cramp) creating paper cut outs of what she says will be her house someday*
This is where the film runs into its first problem(s). Fast forward to present day. Joy’s mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) and father Rudy (Robert De Niro) have split, but are both living in the house Joy is killing herself by owning. Her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramirez) also lives there, in the basement, as he works out his dreams of being a singer. Mimi is there too to help care for Joy’s daughter Christie (played by twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) and her son Tommy (who we never see) and occasionally provide Joy with some much needed words of wisdom and encouragement.
What made The Fighter such an entertaining and watchable movie, is that we spent time with the characters before getting right into the plot. For better or worse, we went into the plot fully versed on the family and their dynamics. I can’t say the same thing here; It feels as if someone edited out a whole chunk of the film that was supposed to sit between the very (brief) chapter of her childhood and the one documenting her rise to Home Shopping Network fame. Even O. Russell’s characterization of Joy is lacking. We can tell she cares about her children and is a fierce matriarch, but that’s really it. Perhaps the best developed thing in the film is Joy’s relationship with her best friend Jackie (Orange Is The New Black’s Dascha Polanco, frustratingly underused) but even that never given the right amount of attention to keep it from feeling like a stock role/plot convenience.
The problems only grow worse as Joy develops the Miracle Mop. After nabbing an investment from her father’s new girlfriend Trudy (an uneven Isabella Rossellini), she pitches it to Home Shopping Network. Executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) gives Joy a chance, and after several attempts the product takes off. Her problems are far from over, however, as Joy finds that with success comes betrayal. This is, in typical David O. Russell fashion, swept aside very quickly to pave way for Joy’s success, which never feels earned despite all of her setbacks.
By the time JOY was over, I found myself scratching my head over what I just watched. The characters all seemed like rough first drafts, desperately awaiting top edits and further complexation, something that O. Russell forgot to do or simply didn’t care enough about. Problems are introduced and solved in a matter of moments after we watch Joy’s family members kick her while she’s down, which I’m guessing were injected as the scenes meant to be display Lawrence’s acting, but lack the heft or nuance to really amount to much of anything. She’s far too young of an actress, physically and emotionally, to be portraying this character, let alone taking her through three generations of her lifetime. Much like her role in American Hustle, Lawrence’s youth distracts from any and all attempts to portray this character; It feels like a kid playing dress up under the very thin veil of ‘great acting.’
I’m not sure if JOY’s tonal inconsistency developed in the editing room or stems from its screenplay. The film was originally written by Bridesmaids‘ c0-writer Annie Mumlo, and then reworked by O. Russell. A similar top edit happened with American Hustle’s screenplay, another one of O. Russell’s loud messes, so perhaps it is a problem with the writing. Regardless, for all of its inflated, loud hamminess , JOY is a film that ultimately says nothing at all.
Oscar Chances: While I don’t think the film has a shot in Best Picture, Director, or Screenplay, Lawrence still has a shot for Best Actress, simply because it’s that kind of leading performance; She is in every frame of the movie. I ultimately think she’ll be left off the shortlist, but I wouldn’t be shocked if she still pulls out a nomination either. Stranger things have happened.