Even Jennifer Lawrence’s Brilliant Performance Can’t Save David O. Russell’s ‘Joy’

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They used to call them “Women’s Pictures.” A staple of popular filmmaking in the mid-20th century, they told heart-wrenching stories of strong women and the storms they faced; they featured fierce actors like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Of course, they weren’t directed by women, because they didn’t really let women make movies then (hahaha, then), yet a subset of directors like Douglas Sirk, George Cukor, and Vincente Minnelli made a specialty of them. If the new comedy/drama Joy teaches us anything, it’s that it took a special kind of male filmmaker to tell these stories, and David O. Russell is not cut from that cloth.

You can’t blame him for trying. Joy marks his third straight collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence, and the first that was clearly custom-made for her talents (though he continues his puzzling pattern of casting her in roles that she is, in her own words, “obviously too young for”). He rewrote Annie Mumolo’s screenplay expressly for her, and in the process fuzzied its true story origins; initially advertised as the story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, it now opens with the vague title, “Inspired by true stories of daring women… one in particular.”

That one in particular is Joy, a Long Island housewife and divorced mother who shares a rambling home with her father (Robert De Niro) and mother (Virginia Madsen), also divorced, along with her grandmother (Diane Lane) and ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez). She works for an airline and is flat broke, but her head is still full of the promises her grandmother made her, that she would “grow up to be a good, strong woman.” And one day, she gets an idea, for a mop that you can wring out without using your hands, and she decides that idea is her ticket out.

It’s hard to pinpoint what tone Russell is going for in these early scenes — normally one of his most refreshing qualities, because it usually seems more purposeful than it does here. In something like Three Kings or even Silver Linings Playbook, one gets the sense that he’s trying to keep the viewer off-balance; in Joy, it feels more like the filmmaker himself is off-balance. Aside from Joy, the characters are all oddly one-note, comically transparent in their verbalized attempts to crush our poor heroine’s hopes and dreams (“It was my mistake to make her think she was more than she was,” shrugs her father at a key point) and obstruct her progress. Around the time the ex-husband’s new girlfriend (who’s never heard of before or again) randomly shows up in a Kmart parking lot to tell Joy what a bad mother she is, you begin to suspect Russell might not have the soft touch required to pile on the trials and tribulations of her story.

Also, have I mentioned there’s a scene where he dramatizes her newfound toughness and resolve by having her stare herself down in a mirror as she cuts her own hair? There’s a scene where that happens. In a movie made in 2015. It’s a messy script, even by Russell’s own lax standards; characters disappear for huge swaths of the narrative, story strands don’t pay off, and big emotional beats are so overcooked they smoke up the screen.

There are a handful of very good scenes about midway through the movie, when Joy gets a shot at pitching her mop to the muckety-mucks at the then-nascent QVC. The big cheese is Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who keeps comparing himself to the studio heads of old Hollywood, and ends up leading her in to a live broadcast — co-hosted by Joan Rivers, played by daughter Melissa, a nice touch — that he manages like an orchestra conductor, playing the hosts, the cameras, and the phones. That scene, and Joy’s subsequent appearances on the home shopping network’s airwaves, have so much more life and energy than the rest of the picture, it almost feels like they’re the movie Russell actually wanted to make.

But instead, he made this one. Lawrence is, needless to say, terrific; by now, she seems incapable of being inauthentic onscreen, and performs brilliantly in the handful of GIF-ready movie-star moments Russell constructs for her. But she can only do so much. The filmmaker’s by-now-legendary working methods, of heavy improvisation and go-with-the-flow direction and construction, have led to inspired riffs on sports movies (The Fighter), rom-coms (Silver Linings), and crime pictures (American Hustle). But it’s an approach that relies on conjuring up magic on command, and sometimes, said magic just doesn’t show up. Joy is one of those times.

Joy is out Christmas Day.