Will Joy’s Mixed Reviews Ding J.Law for Oscar?

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Joy’: Film Review.

“Joy” is an ode to the American dream and, more important, the American housewife, starring a dependably steely Jennifer Lawrence as a version of Joy Mangano, the Long Island mother of three whose design for the self-wringing Miracle Mop turned her into a multimillionaire.David O Russell’s Joy is an intriguing but weirdly subdued and stylised film starring Jennifer Lawrence – who incidentally achieves new heights of imperious beauty.

For sheer wackiness and functional dysfunctionalism, the family in the venerable farce You Can’t Take It With You is given a good run for its money by the clan at the center of Joy. It’s been an emotive 12 months of increased discussion over Hollywood sexism, kickstarted by Patricia Arquette’s frantic Oscar acceptance speech about the need for equal pay within the film industry. Russell has a remarkable string of successes in the past five years, winning three Best Director and two Screenplay Oscar nominations for his most recent trio of films The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Her words were then echoed by her starry peers, including Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron and, most notably, Jennifer Lawrence, whose essay about how outspoken women are often unfairly labelled sent yet more plaudits her way. If a “Eureka!” moment in the history of the household cleaning industry seems a less-than-intuitive premise for a mainstream feature film, rest assured that Russell has stretched this heavily fictionalized material about as far as it could go, though he stops well short of the screwball delirium and emotional liftoff he achieved in his recent string of triumphs. Her words have acted as a sort of primer for her performance as Joy Mangano, a woman boxed in by circumstance but refusing to let societal restrictions stop her from aiming upwards. Despite another solid performance from Jennifer Lawrence, anchoring Russell’s sincerely felt tribute to the power of a woman’s resolve in a man’s world, it’s hard not to wish “Joy” were better — that its various winsome parts added up to more than a flyweight product that still feels stuck in the development stage.

It is about the real-life inventor and single mother Joy Mangano, who got rich in the 1990s selling her own revolutionary self-wringing mop on the QVC home shopping channel – while battling with condescending male corporate types and various members of her own massively dysfunctional extended family. That the film itself is nearly as chaotic as the clan it examines can either be regarded as an admirable artistic correlative or a crippling defect, but the splendidly dexterous cast ensures that this goofy success story, which could just easily be titled American Hustle 2, keeps firing on all cylinders in the manner of the writer-director’s previous few outings.

Within the course of the film, she’s reminded to be aware of her role as a parent, underestimated as a businesswoman and told to dream in a more realistic, more achievable, more “female” manner. Much has already been made about the fact that Russell — always a fan of sharply written, exuberantly played female characters, going back to “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster” — has now written and directed his first picture centered wholly around a woman. Clearly, Russell and his co-screenwriter Annie Mumolo have no intention of telling this story straight, like Erin Brockovich, but it can’t simply be sent up either, as a bizarre adventure, like the crooked shenanigans of his previous comedy American Hustle – though there are certainly echoes, as Joy fumes at the way she gets let down and ripped off. When a film runs through four credited editors, it’s usually a sign that something’s amiss, be it in pacing, narrative coherence, tonal control and/or balance among diverse elements.

It makes this film — the third collaboration between star Jennifer Lawrence and the director — not only a welcome respite from all the blood and guts male-oriented movies headed our way on Christmas Day but also an enormously effective story of female empowerment, family and success against all odds. She’s a dutiful daughter to her semi-lunatic parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen, both terrific) and breadwinner for her children and rather likable ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez). Loosely based on the life of a single mother whose knack for invention led to her creating the Miracle Mop, a domestic innovation that elevated her from struggling dreamer to successful entrepreneur, Joy is a similarly transformative biopic.

Even in a year that has seen a refreshing uptick in distaff-centric Hollywood narratives (in front of the camera, anyway), that virtue that should lend “Joy” some counter-programming heft opposite the more male-skewing likes of “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight,” both also opening Christmas Day. Rudy (Robert De Niro), her exasperating father, has recently moved into her basement, after being dumped on the doorstep by his ex-partner like a malfunctioning washing machine. It doesn’t really aim for the laughs or the pure argumentative craziness I’ve come to associate with Russell: actually it’s more a kind of Lynchian reverie, especially with the extraordinary opening scene. Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd) provides unnecessary narration, but the film’s early scenes vividly illustrate Joy’s exhausting existence. “I’m just going to close my eyes for a bit,” she says, then sinks into the comatose sleep of the woman who does it all. O Russell takes a story filled with familiar emotional beats and victories and upgrades it into a dreamy, artfully handled opus of triumph and ingenuity.

And Lawrence, presently sitting atop the box office in the fourth and final installment of the “Hunger Games” franchise, should drive curious audiences toward this welcome alternative showcase for her ever-expanding range as an actress. This appears to be a master shot of a group of actors in a cheesy daytime soap, addressing stilted lines not to each other but somewhere off to the left and right, a dreamlike composition that won’t make sense until the camera angles are revealed later on. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), this is perhaps the first time we have seen such a full-bodied, strongly grounded and determined performance from Lawrence, and she runs with it.

There’s a touch of “Erin Brockovich” and a smattering of “Mildred Pierce” in the story (credited to Russell and Annie Mumolo) of a smart, resourceful, working-class single mom defying considerable odds to seize her entrepreneurial moment, and meeting with shaky support and stubborn resistance from her family and outsiders in the process. This could be an interesting karmic conflation of the kind of daytime soap opera adored by Joy’s bedbound mother, with the slightly surreal world of home shopping TV itself, often presented by soap stars: it’s as if Joy has floated between worlds. Using her daughter’s crayons, Joy (no relation to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano) designs her now-famous mop, then hits up her father’s girlfriend (a beguilingly strange Isabella Rossellini) for seed money.

And Russell, unspooling this rags-to-riches fable in a tone of mocking affection, riffs on two of the storytelling modes that have been historically and often disparagingly reserved for women: the fairy tale and the soap opera. As she wrings out the mop-head by hand, she looks down at her palms, pierced by glass and spotted with blooms of blood, and realises things have to change. Many, if not most filmmakers (Sturges included) would have had great satiric fun with this, but for Russell her achievement is as legitimate and challenging as any other in life—including, one might propose, making a film; the same degree of tenacity and belief in oneself is involved. The growth of Joy’s homespun business, a mess of patent laws and shady manufacturers, is fitfully entertaining, but “Joy” hits its stride with the arrival of Neil Walker, an executive at the fledgling home-shopping channel QVC who gives Joy her life-changing chance.

He’s ably assisted by a supporting cast that includes standout turns from Isabella Rossellini, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen and a wondrously annoying Elisabeth Röhm as Joy’s petty half-sister. Unfolding mainly in an unspecified Rust Belt town during the 1980s and ’90s, the movie frames its heroine’s story with an amusing sendup of a long-running daytime TV serial (populated by such game, Emmy-winning icons of the medium as Susan Lucci, Laura Wright and Maurice Benard), while the gentle storybook narration of Joy’s beloved grandmother, Mimi (the great Diane Ladd, another soap veteran), bobs and weaves in and out of the narrative.

The outer trappings of Joy’s life could easily have been the stuff of pure farce, but Russell, more maturely and ambitiously, pushes his enterprise in the direction of human comedy. Walker, a blue-eyed true believer in capitalism, played by a compelling Bradley Cooper, vocalizes some interesting ideas about American democracy, commerce and social mobility. “I believe,” he says, “that one day television will be by and about regular people.” “Joy” could have easily mocked its heroine as a symbol of middle-American consumerism. The problem with Jennifer Lawrence at this stage is that she’s so consistently impressive from film to film that her confidence and versatility is often taken for granted. Mimi has long been a pillar of strength for Joy (Lawrence), and a necessary counterweight to the influence of her long-divorced parents, both of whom are decidedly in their own worlds. This is inspired and based on her true story and real events, though Russell would be first to admit it is not a straight biopic even though the most incredible parts of it are things he didn’t have to make up.

Enraged by all this mediocrity and mess, and inspired by the fiasco of having to mop up wine on a boat belonging to Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy (Rossellini), Joy is inspired to invent her new mop, and effectively to re-invent herself – as a success. Lawrence plays her with grit and mettle, something she’s famous for both on-screen (“The Hunger Games”) and off (as a proponent of equitable pay for women in Hollywood). Unlike many lesser films this year (and many a year), Joy works hard for its moments of pleasure, earning its way into our hearts with the same determinism that made the real Mangano a force to be reckoned with.

This is the flashpoint, to quote Bradley Cooper’s mustard-jacketed QVC executive, who’s hovering on the sidelines, at which “the ordinary meets the extraordinary” – where a dirty mop-head has the power to wring itself, and Joy’s similarly grimy existence starts to turn itself inside out. Joining the mix before too long is an Italian woman of means, Trudi (Isabella Rossellini), who takes up with lifelong romantic Rudy and provides a welcome addition of grace and propriety. Although “Joy” can’t quite decide what it wants to be — the studio insists it’s not a biopic, though clearly it’s not not one — we never doubt the determination and inner strength of Joy herself. There’s a bounty’s worth of high notes to be savoured here and O Russell makes each one soar by relying on something Joy herself prioritised: the everlasting importance of hard work.

In short, it’s another of Russell’s classic fractious families, the sort of bickersome clan that leaves the floor covered in broken crockery in the first five minutes of screen time, and the movie has fun using strategically positioned dream sequences and flashbacks to illuminate how Joy got to this difficult point — and how she might move past it. As the film flashes back and jumps around in time, Joy is established as a doer and creator who fills any vacuum created by others’ inaction, a necessary trait if anything is to get done in this otherwise short-falling family. “I don’t need a prince,” she insists at a young age and, indeed, she gets along with Tony famously once she gives up expecting anything of him as a husband. Although rejected by just about everyone she takes it to, Mangano discovers the opportunity to sell it on TV just at the time home shopping network QVC is taking off.

She may be the glue holding together this tangled mess of dysfunction, but Joy is destined for greater things than working with her mean-spirited half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), at their dad’s auto shop — something she’s instinctively known since she was a young girl (played by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp), cutting and pasting together intricate paper dioramas in her bedroom. Yet this film often feels rather unreal – an unreality that is by turns disconcerting and entertaining – though never as unreal as its hallucinatory opening scene. At a certain point, however, after one too many setbacks and disappointments, Joy momentarily collapses in apparent defeat. “What happened to us?” she pleads. “I feel like our dreams are getting farther and farther away.” Only from this low point can Russell start to burrow into his favorite theme and begin to construct another of his tales of self-reinvention. Once Joy fashions her homemade mop, a simple device with the key component of a 300-foot cotton loop that’s easily wrung out without a watery mess, she obsessively but rationally pursues her goal of marketing it. The words “Miracle Mop” — or “Mangano,” for that matter — are never actually uttered here, suggesting that “Joy” is unfolding in roughly the same realm of altered names, composite characters, rejiggered time frames and loosely fact-inspired truthiness that begat “American Hustle.” Yet despite the air of lightly comic exaggeration that attends the whole enterprise, there’s a certain hard-edged rigor to the way Russell lays out the innumerable challenges of launching one’s own business.

We also appear to be promised an almost dynastic story of Joy’s long-term success as the matriarch of a business empire, but this is wrapped up very briefly at the end. Joy is fortunate to have a begrudging source of capital in the form of Rudy’s wealthy new squeeze, Trudy (a delightful Isabella Rossellini), who locates a sketchy California company willing to manufacture parts on the cheap (or so they think).

Specifically, the movie seems to hold out the idea that Joy’s destiny will be thrillingly entwined with the QVC boss played by Bradley Cooper – but Cooper’s performance and the role itself are frankly pretty flavourless and even dull, with little for Lawrence to play off against. More productively, she worms her way in to see QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who amusingly tells of having been hired by Barry Diller to build the business, provides a nifty inside view of what the network’s protocols are and ends by unexpectedly asking Joy the question she couldn’t have even dreamed of hearing: “Can you make 50,000 of these mops by next week?” Although this may seem like the end of the rainbow to Joy, it’s actually the dark side of the moon, as myriad new obstacles are shoved in her path to success and self-vindication. But then there’s the problem of distribution, as Kmart and other retail stores prove unwilling to devote floor space to such an expensive ($19.95 a mop) and potentially game-changing product.

The developments in the second half begin to illuminate what ultimately make the film seem somewhat arch and artificial, which is that things keep bouncing from the highest highs to the lowest lows with little in between. And it happens across the board: Both of Joy’s parents flip from utter misanthropy and negativity to the vicinity of bliss on the basis of new and highly unlikely romantic entanglements, Neil shuttles between being hero and villain, and a mystery man toward the end similarly exists only in extremes. But Joy’s confidence ultimately persuades Neil to put not only the product but also the inventor herself on the air, paving the way for a suspenseful, even blissful comic payoff in which we see this hard-working self-starter come fully and radiantly into her own.

Life may be a roller-coaster, but the repeated sudden changes in fortune that repeatedly turn lives upside down in both directions come to feel increasingly artificial in the telling. These scenes find an ideal balance between self-fulfillment comic fantasy and gritty, workaday realism, and “Joy” benefits from its focus on the mundane; it’s a marvel how much quiet emotion Lawrence manages to wring, so to speak, as she speaks lovingly about her mop and its unprecedented 300 feet of super-absorbent, hand-coiled cotton.

Though he works for a cable TV shopping channel, Cooper’s character comports himself like a Golden Age Hollywood filmmaker – rhapsodising about old-school studio heads Jack Warner and Darryl F. She has some wonderful set pieces: I loved her storming out of her dad’s car repair shop to the soundtrack of Elvis’s A Little Less Conversation and then relieving her feelings by blasting away with someone’s pump-action shotgun at the next-door shooting range. But after that peak, the movie begins to flatten out as Joy’s ever-shifting fortunes tug her this way and that, while a succession of broken promises and cruel betrayals lead her from overnight sales success to the brink of bankruptcy, before her eventual rebirth as a new kind of familial and corporate matriarch.

Once again, Lawrence rises to the occasion and takes charge, bringing to life a character who fights the fight for several decades and comes out on top. There is a fine group of male actors as well including Edgar Ramirez who plays Tony, Joy’s ex-husband but now friend and business associate who lives in the basement with her not-so-responsible but well-meaning father Rudy (another fine turn from Silver Linings co-star De Niro). The swift, tidy reversals that bring the story to its fairy-tale conclusion feel unpredictable yet also somewhat arbitrary, and Russell, seemingly uncertain as to when to call it quits, seems content to end things on an optimistic shrug.

She reliably brings grit and conviction to her characterization, but what’s missing is the illumination of an inner emotional life, even if it were just the acknowledgment that Joy has put a hold on romantic fulfillment. The whole idea of a divorced couple who still have a decent relationship and love for each other — even if its not romantic love — is rarely explored in movies, and Lawrence and Ramirez have great chemistry. Selznick met Jennifer Jones, a former hat model whose collaborations with Selznick made her a star of Classical Hollywood cinema – and Russell is drawing an additional, impertinent but irresistible parallel with his and Lawrence’s own creative alliance. Both of her parents have been accorded this dimension, credibly and even touchingly in the case of Rudy, and very amusingly, if not entirely convincingly, with Terry. If you are looking for a great human story this season look no further than Joy, one of the year’s most enriching and entertaining films, a throwback in many ways to kind of movies studios turned out in the ’40s and ’50s when big female stars really held court.

The rhythms are slightly off from the start, and try as he might, Russell can’t quite unlock either the grand human comedy or the gritty working-class melodrama within. Producers are John Davis, Jonathan Gordon, Ken Mok, Megan Ellison and Russell for the film, which is being released Christmas Day by 20th Century Fox.

And Lawrence, such a blazing revelation in “Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” gives a performance that’s easy enough to root for but much less jagged and distinctive than her earlier work; always flinty, emotionally accessible and pleasurable to watch, she nevertheless seems to be embodying some vague, free-floating spirit of sisterhood rather than a character we feel we’ve come to know intimately by movie’s end. West Dylan Thordson and David Campbell’s punchy score is complemented by some sharply chosen musical samplings, which only partially papers over the film’s many jumpy and abrupt transitions as it lurches through the years and the characters’ wildly changing life circumstances. Rohm, in particular, has been either misdirected or miscast as the competitive older sister whose attitude toward Joy feels needlessly antagonistic and one-note.

But the other actors fare better, even when their various comic non sequiturs feel a bit shoehorned in; Madsen and Rossellini have endearingly loopy moments, De Niro knows the lovable-curmudgeon routine inside out; Dascha Polanco steals a scene or two as Joy’s unswervingly loyal best friend; and Ladd simply makes you grateful to see her in her first significant big-screen appearance in years. Cooper can still generate enough of a spark with Lawrence to make you wish he had more screen time, though her truer partner here is Ramirez as Charlie — a winsome Desi to her Lucy, offering genial evidence that amicable divorces make for the most enduring friendships.

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