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Non-Review Review: Joy

Joy is very much a showcase for David O. Russell’s interests, and his excesses.

Russell is a filmmaker with a particular sensibility in style. This is particularly obvious in the way that the director feels continuously drawn to the same performers and themes. As with many of Russell’s films, the cast of Joy is populated by actors who have worked with the director before. This is most apparent in the casting of Russell’s current creative ruse Jennifer Lawrence, who worked with Russell on Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. She is joined by Russell veterans like Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.

Could the domestic cleaning industry use a shot in the arm?

Could the domestic cleaning industry use a shot in the arm?

Similarly, the film plays to Russell’s particular fascinations; Joy ties together the director’s engagement with Americana and his exploration of dysfunctional family dynamics. Joy places these two themes front-and-centre, but never quite synthesises them into a convincing whole. All too often, it feels like Joy is far more interested in the discordant home life of its female protagonist than all of the historical details it has to weave into her rags-to-riches tale. This causes problems when her journey takes her away from that home, and the film loses interest.

Joy is somewhat overstuffed, its attention wandering as the run-time goes on. For a story about a self-made millionaire whose rags-to-riches success embodies the ideal of the American Dream, Joy often feels quite rote; luxuriating in its depiction of her family life, the movie’s second half feels over extended as it clocks through all the beat expected in a story like this. Its final third is given over to a crisis that feels as obligatory as its resolution is convenient. For a movie about a woman with an ability to see innovation, Joy is trapped by its conventionality.

Talk about a mop top...

Talk about a mop top…

David O. Russell is much more interested in Joy as a whimsical character study than a narrative feature. The film’s first two acts stretch out the weird and complicated world of its central character. Joy is a young girl with a keen eye for invention and a limitless imagination. Joy likes to build things, constructing elaborate paper models to help her tell fanciful fairy tales about how she imagines her life will play out. As is the way in these sorts of stories, life has a way of interfering. Joy’s parents divorce, the family is shattered, and Joy’s hopes are dashed.

The portrayal of Joy’s home life eats up most of the film’s runtime. Indeed, Joy is fixated upon the idea of home and family. Most of the film is spent inside the walls of Joy’s old two-storey home, a house which provides shelter to no less than four generations of the same family. Joy presents the house in a fashion that is almost stylised. The inside seems so much larger than the outside, with the seven (or even eight or nine, depending on when the count is taken and some ambiguity about who is living there and who is a guest) residents seldom tripping over one another.

Joy to the world...

Joy to the world…

With its crowded living arrangements that somehow manage to find space for each and every occupant, decorated in whites and creams, the home sometimes feels like a set from a sitcom. Although the main staircase is missing its banister a representation of the cash-starved nature of the family, it also serves as a convenient set design choice, allowing characters using (or sitting or sleeping on) the stairs to remain clearly visible to the audience. It is not particularly hard to imagine the domestic situation present in Joy reconceived as a sitcom with its own strained laugh track.

There are points at which Joy is positively Freudian, the old white home seeming to reflect the psyche of the movie’s central character. It is initially messy and cluttered, unfocused and lost. It is home to all of her baggage, all of her burdens. It threatens to fall apart just as Joy does the same, water pipes bursting as Joy herself seems ready to crack under the pressure. Things only become more ordered once Joy takes charge of the house, drawing in outside assistance (whether a plumber or an investor) and casting out unnecessary distractions.

Does Joy have the DeNiro to put her dream in motion?

Does Joy have the DeNiro to put her dream in motion?

There is a host of intriguing – and faintly uncomfortable – imagery bubbling just beneath the surface. Early in the film, the basement of the house provides a home both Joy’s father and her ex-husband. At another point, three generations of the family find themselves sleeping in the same bed. The film populates the house with creams and off-whites, from the white picketed fence to the snow on the front lawn to the toilet roll used to divide the basement; however, most of the whites inside the home are off-white, as if stained and decayed by time.

This is to say nothing of Joy’s nightmares about her family suffocating her, imagining herself trapped within the black-and-white set of the soap operas that play non-stop on her mother’s bedside television set. Joy seems to imagine herself trapped within a box trapped within a box; even the soap opera footage recorded in California is ultimately subsumed by Joy’s domestic life. Joy’s family towers above everything, her home life dominating her perception of the world. And, it turns out, the film’s perception of her.

Let it snow...

Let it snow…

This is perhaps the root of the problem with Joy. In many respects, Joy is a companion piece to The Fighter. Both are films that wed David O. Russell’s twin fascinations with dysfunctional family life and American idealism. Both Joy and Micky find themselves struggling against their families in pursuit of their version of the American Dream; The Fighter channeled Micky’s vision of the American Dream through the prism of boxing, while Joy opts for a more conventional rags-to-riches tale. Both films even feature a sabotaging half-sibling.

The Fighter was able to keep its focus tight enough that it could weave those two thematic strands together. Micky’s relationship to his family was tied to the larger issues of his own success, with Dicky serving as connective tissue. In contrast, Joy has to look for her success outside the structures of family. Her path to success takes her out of the home to face her most serious challenges, whether in trying to sell her invention to others or in dealing with cynical business-savvy partners that would seek to exploit her.

A marriage marred...

A marriage marred…

Joy is much less interested in this part of the story, which handicaps the second half of the film. Joy is most engaged when exploring a home life that is somewhat disconnected from the film’s rags-to-riches structure. This causes severe problems in the film’s plotting, when the movie needs to have Joy go out into a wider world that feels much less developed (and much less interesting) than the domestic world that dominates so much of the movie’s first half. Joy’s adventures in the outside world feel crammed into the third act, rushed and underdeveloped.

To be fair, Joy does try to connect its hero’s journey back to that family life. As Joy sinks more and more money into her business, the film stresses that her very home is at risk. When she meets with television executive Neil Walker, he stresses his role as something of a cultural gatekeeper; as a buyer for K-Mart he determined what products people let into their homes, while as a television executive he exercises a similar authority over images (and products) beamed directly into the American home.

It's good to be Brad...

It’s good to be Brad…

Talking about the art of the sale, Walker frames it in terms of hands and touching. The television studio is designed to evoke a home; not just on the sound stages built to replicate domestic life, but in the dressing room with its whites and pale shades designed to recall Joy’s house. Joy claims that only she can sell the mop because only she actually understands the domestic reality of it. The film itself even makes this a meta-fictional point, casting Melissa Rivers in the role of her late mother. Joy is all about the family, even when it’s not.

This causes problems the further that Joy drifts away from the theme of family and towards its broader handling of the rags-to-riches tale. Because so much of that is delayed by the focus on family, the movie drags in its second-half. Because so much energy is given to developing and fleshing out Joy’s family, her competitors and business rivals seem paper-thin. Because the family dynamics are through into such sharp focus, the actual financial stakes feel vague and hazy.

Family business...

Family business…

More than that, the film’s resolution of these third-act stakes feels trite. Joy’s final financial crisis feels obligatory, a necessary hurdle for any story about an aspiring business person to face, but one with little unique character or identity. However, Joy seems completely disengaged from these stakes, offering a convenient (and exposition-driven) solution to all of Joy’s problems. The result is a third act that seems largely dramatically inert; it just eats up space and makes the movie feel far too long.

These problems also mean that Russell aims for a profundity that he never quite earns. The closing scenes of Joy feature a fairly blatant homage to Citizen Kane, a fact that Russell acknowledges with a conspicuous shot of a child holding a sleigh a few minutes earlier. Russell structures the reference as what should be a neat thematic reversal, something of an anti-Rosebud commentary on what it takes to get ahead in American business. However, it doesn’t feel earned, seeming like an afterthought in a second half that already trades on cliché rather than depth.

Staged...

Staged…

(In contrast, the more effective aspects of that closing montage come earlier in the sequence. Russell’s fixation on the family home comes back into focus as the camera offers a glimpse of Joy’s future by offering viewers a tour of the protagonist’s home. As the camera pans through the rooms and catches up with the occupants, the movie embraces the pseudo-psychology of its first half. However, this playful self-awareness quickly gives way to a much more generic ending, one more focused on a narrative about which the movie cares little.)

Jennifer Lawrence does great work, demonstrating just how effective and versatile she is as a leading performer. Lawrence plays a character who seems to have life experience stretching beyond the actress’ twenty-five years. Russell is a director with an eye for ensembles. While Joy lacks a breakout supporting performance like The Fighter or Three Kings, his cast do good work. It is easy to see why the film seems so invested in the protagonist’s family, even if there is very little it can actually do with them given the story that it wants to tell.

Off the books...

Off the books…

Joy doesn’t work, its attention divided between two key interests that it fails to dove-tail into a satisfying whole. Much more interested in tone and mood than narrative or plot, Joy suffers from its attempts to have everything. (Which is certainly ironic, given it is the story of a young woman aspiring to more.) “You can’t always get what you want,” teased the soundtrack to the film’s first trailer. Perhaps the film would have done well to listen.

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