Sunday, January 3, 2016

A SOAP MOPERA: a review of "Joy"

Story by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell
Screenplay Written by David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Now this is much more like it!!

To faithful readers of Savage Cinema, you are more than aware of my loathing of Writer/Director David O. Russell's "American Hustle" (2013), so I will not burden you with any re-hashings. That being said, I hated that film so very much that it made even the idea of seeing his latest effort a possibility. No, I didn't wish to give up on Russell as I have long admired his purely idiosyncratic nature as a filmmaker. But even so, the quality control of his entire output has been wildly uneven.

From his strong, early independent features like "Spanking The Monkey" (1994) and "Flirting With Disaster" (1996) and his truly great films like "Three Kings" (1999) and "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012), we have also been given the highly ambitious but outright messy "I Heart Huckabees" (2004) and overrated and surprisingly pedestrian "The Fighter" (2010). I suppose that as I look over Russell's filmography, I have enjoyed more than I have not. But, when he misses...

Anyhow, and now that both my cinematic trips to Quentin Tarantino's old west and certainly, J.J. Abrams' wonderful journey to that galaxy far, far away are behind me, I felt it was time to take the plunge back into David O. Russell's film universe. Thankfully and surprisingly, "Joy" is easily one of his finer efforts. With a rich storytelling canvas that is exploratory, complex, unorthodox and complete, Russell, like Tarantino and Abrams, has delivered a movie filled to the tip top with story and a collective of characters so involving, the end result felt akin to reading a terrific novel. Additionally, he has proven that his cinematic relationship with Jennifer Lawrence was no fluke, as "Joy" marks their best collaboration to date.

Loosely based upon the life of inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano, "Joy" stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy, a divorced single Mother of two young children, living in an increasingly dilapidated house on the South Shore of Long Island. While employed as a booking clerk for Eastern Airlines, the threads of Joy's life are gradually and rapidly being stretched thinner and thinner as she also cares for her depressed, shut-in, soap opera obsessed Mother, Terri (Virginia Madsen), as well as her ex-husband Anthony (Edgar Ramirez), who lives in the basement, her supportive Grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) and now, her Father, Rudy (Robert DeNiro), newly divorced for the third time, now contentiously sharing the basement with Anthony and running a failing auto repair shop at which Joy also performs duties as an accountant and book-keeper.

After a short spell from his third divorce, Rudy soon begins dating Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a wealthy widow who possesses a strong head for business. On a wintry afternoon as the family takes a boat ride with Trudy, a spill of red wine on deck inspires the ever inventive Joy with an idea to create what would eventually become the Miracle Mop. But the road from idea to lucrative success is a long, complicated, arduous one with fraudulent deals, increasing to the point of nearly devastating financial costs, endless needling from her bitterly competitive sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) to even attempting to find a home upon the fledgling QVC network at which she feverishly tries to win the favor of QVC Executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper).

While Joy remains intrepid, are the qualities of intense tenacity and innate creativity enough to achieve her dreams of financial stability and ultimately, her independence?

As previously stated, David O. Russell's "Joy" is a veritable feast of a film with more than enough story, twists and tuns of the plot and a rich band of characters to weave into a sumptuous whole. Like Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," Russell's film is not in any bit of a hurry to get anywhere (a quality that Russell unfortunately does not handle as well as Tarantino as there are some bits here and there that drag). But Russell does indeed continuously and consistently ups the stakes and increases the personal turmoil for Joy, making her a protagonist that you not only root for vigorously, you truly feel the grueling nature of her odyssey quite effectively. When she hits a wall, you definitely feel the fall and sense of failure. But when she scores, the lift is unquestionable.

While Jennifer Lawrence, now at the age of 25, has been criticized for perhaps being too young to take on this role, I felt that she once again exhibited a tremendous sense of command and empathy. Often, as I watched, I found her to be almost a spiritual cousin to cinema's long beleaguered George Bailey from Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) as Joy is presented to be a genuine, decent person who tirelessly gives of herself for the betterment of her family, regardless of how dysfunctional and maddening that they all happen to be. Often at the expense of her own well-being and sanity, Joy accepts these people for whom they are and without judgement, even when she has more than enough rights to feel judgmental and even resentful of those who consistently make her life difficult to the point of misery, exhaustion and at times, psychological despair that invades her dreams.

For some, the towering high level to which David O. Russell places obstacles in front of Joy may feel to be excessive, but here is where I thought that Russell displayed a certain creative touch that makes his film stand out. Yes, there is a certain sense of heightened reality at work, as if Joy's journey from rags to potential riches, which admittedly, Russell presents as nearly Sisyphean, is essentially the fable of the American Dream where that can-do, steadfast attitude can ultimately reward with a wellspring of fortunes. Now, we know that sort of concept is entirely relative but even so, that framework does sit at the heart of "Joy."

But for me, I felt that David O. Russell had even more fanciful ideas with this story and the level of trials and tribulations that our bruised yet undaunted heroine would undertake. To me, "Joy" often felt to be cut from the same cloth as a film like Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" (2014), which possessed a certain adult fairy tale quality. Who else is the character of Joy but a modern day version of Cinderella, the perpetually put-upon heroine on which the stars will ultimately shine? But, even further, "Joy" feels to be David O. Russell's real world version of nothing less than the soap operas Joy's Mother is addicted to, a story where our unstoppable heroine is beset by all manner of pitfalls from which she will hopefully overcome.

Yet unlike fairly tales and soap operas, Joy, and powerfully so, is never waiting for her Prince (or anyone for that matter) to rescue her. In fact, any potential suitors never arrive within this story, an element that was indeed strongly refreshing. Joy is the sole heroine of her life and this film spins a tale where we witness how her ingenuity, her cunning, her integrity, her accessibility, her uncompromising nature and pureness of heart and spirit will combine to be her sources of strength in an unforgiving world where life owes none of us even one single thing. Unlike in "American Hustle," where I felt that Russell left Lawrence completely stranded, with "Joy," the two are working in lockstep rhythm. It is as if Russell is throwing the absolute perfect pitches for Lawrence to always hit that grand slam and their collaboration is so tightly focused that it makes me anxious to see what they come up with next time.

Most of all, I admired "Joy," the film and character, as we now have another film where the female lead is the one who exists as the full engine driver of the story, much like we have seen this year with Charlize Theron in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road," Rebecca Ferguson in Director Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation," Daisy Ridley in Director J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and even Jennifer Jason Leigh in Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight." Yes, most of those films exist within the fantasy realm where "Joy" is a real world drama, but the intent is precisely the same. The stories of all of those aforementioned films, and now "Joy," cannot exist without any of those actresses and their respective characters and none of them are ever defined by their sexuality and or prospective love interests. These women are ONLY defined through the content and actions of their characters. Certainly, this should not be a novelty but sadly, and eve in 2015/2016, it pathetically remains. But these roles are indeed a source of progress, and "Joy" does indeed make a very strong statement.

I suppose that this is how it is going to be with David O. Russell. Prolific, inventive, restlessly creative and consistently inconsistent. Whether I find his next feature to be great, or a failure or something in the middle, "Joy" is one that is not to be missed.

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