It's kind of like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, just, uh, nowhere near as good.
By: Jimbo X
David O. Russell is one of the weirder directors making mainstream Hollywood flicks these days. While he has no doubt experienced his fair share of success via more palatable flicks like The Fighter and Three Kings, his filmography is also glutted with utterly bizarre passion projects like Spanking the Monkey (a whimsical comedy about mother-on-son incest) and Accidental Love, a 2015 release shelved since 2010 about Jessica Biel getting shot in the head with a nailgun and being transformed into an insatiable nymphomaniac/handicapped rights activist (for some reason, he wanted his name taken off the credits on that one.)
At the heart of Russell's work, it seems, is a rather admirable desire to tell stories about the mentally ill - a special interests group whose numbers surpass the United States' total black population by about 20 million people and positively dwarfs the nation's LGBT populace six fold. Alas, while televisions programs and films anchored around the identity politics surrounding the black and gay American experience are a dime a dozen, pop cultural offerings about individuals with bipolar disorder, chronic depression and severe anxiety remain few and far between, with virtually no major Hollywood releases featuring a person with a mental health disorder as a protagonist coming down the pipes since Russell's 2012 hit Silver Linings Playbook. (As it turns out, Russell was greatly inspired to helm the project because his son has long battled bipolar disorder himself - he even makes a cameo as that annoying prick with the camera during Pat's first major freak-out at his parents' place.)
What makes Silvers Lining Playbook such a remarkable movie is that it's the first Hollywood-complex flick I recall seeing in which the metaphorical camera gaze was through the eyes of someone with a mental illness. Bradley Cooper's character was the one you were supposed to sympathize with most, the individual you were supposed to vicariously live through. Even going back to stuff like Rain Man and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, the directors made the conscious decision to guide viewers through the experiences of the mentally challenged as a second-hand witness. Audiences weren't supposed to relate to Dustin Hoffman or Leonardo DiCaprio's characters - instead, the film was meant to be experienced through the perspectives of "normal" characters like Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp, who were merely impacted - and thoroughly inconvenienced - by someone else's mental health.
With his track record in mind, I was a bit disappointed by Russell's latest flick, Joy, which is really more of a family drama about someone whose tendencies could best be described as "quirky" rather than psychologically ill. It's nowhere close to being the modern classic Silver Linings Playbook is, and as a comprehensive work, I consider it to be miles behind American Hustle, as well. The acting, while serviceable, still feels rushed and warmed over and the chemistry Cooper and Lawrence demonstrated in their previous two Russell pictures is nowhere to be seen.
However, once you stop making comparisons between Joy and the director's previous work, you ultimately walk away with a slightly above average and wholly entertaining character drama, that at times, feels sort of like a lighter, frothier interpretation of American Hustle (in the sense that both pictures are ensemble flicks revolving around scheming and conspiring and intense one-on-one character exchanges.)
Jennifer Lawrence (who, with her blonde locks, instantly brings to mind all of those unfortunate amateur bukakke photos from a few months back) plays the eponymous protagonist, a divorced mother of two who lives in a hectic mixed-household consisting of her soap opera-obsessed, isolationist mama, her supportive-to-the-point-of-being-schmaltzy grandma and her mariachi-singing former hubby, who takes up residence in a makeshift basement bedroom. The already volatile situation is intensified by the re-emergence of Joy's alcohol-swigging, highly-combative father (Robert De Niro, whose acting, sadly, is on cruise control throughout the picture), who uses a widow dating hotline to woo a senior Italian signora porting about a gargantuan life insurance settlement. (Interestingly enough, she's played by the actress who portrayed that Egyptian eternal life elixir saleswoman in Death Becomes Her, and even at 63, she kinda' gives me a chub.)
So JLaw is all sour-pussed because she has to do customer service work at an airline and her sister runs their daddy's auto parts store and she's a total bitch to her and every now and then, she keeps having flashbacks about how her pa ripped up her origami trees back when she was 8. While cleaning up broken wine glasses on her daddy's gal-pal's sailboat and cutting up her palms, she starts working on an all-new, self-wringing mop prototype and because she tried to patent this one leash device that got popular in the 1980s, she decides to pitch her business proposal to the rich Italian broad, and everybody in the family has some reservations, but because she's able to land a cheap manufacturing deal with this shady factory out in California from an even shadier Texan businessman, they say why the hell not and decide to hire some Mexicans to thread mop fibers together in a sweatshop behind a shooting range.
After they all nearly get arrested for trying to sell their wares in a K-Mart parking lot, JLaw's ex-husband tells her about an old friend who just started working with QVC, so she drives down to Pennsylvania and meets with Bradley Cooper and she convinces him to put the product on the air but first she has to promise them 50,000 units and to do that she has to take out a second mortgage and yank more money out of her family's retirement funds and when the mop finally gets shown on TV the host can't figure out how to make the damn thing work and it almost sends her spiraling into depression but then she decides to interrupt a shareholders meeting and convince Cooper to put her on live TV and show how the mop works her damn self, and even if Joan Rivers don't like it, she ain't going to wear any designer clothing while she hawks her wares, neither. Of course, when Joy pitches her own product on live TV, it becomes a runaway success and breaks QVC purchasing records and everybody's happy but the family is still in debt and her sister just signed an agreement with the California company that doubles the cost of producing the mop and when Joy goes over there to hammer out an agreement herself she finds out the company is actually trying to steal her patent and she gets arrested and winds up signing away her rights to the product.
But just you wait! After she spends all-night re-reading the fine print, she learns that the Texas businessman she hooked up with may not exactly be on the up-and-up, and that leads us to our big denouement in a Dallas motel room.
Seeing as how Joy Mangano is now a big shot multi-millionaire businesswoman on the Home Shopping Network, I guess you can determine what the film's post-script resembles. While, taken as a whole, the film's rather enjoyable, it still feels rushed and a bit lifeless, with an out-of-nowhere ending that's among the least satisfying closings of any big-studio release in 2015. The acting, as stated before, is serviceable, but the cast is capable of much, much better. Ultimately, Russell made as good a movie as he could out of the source material, which, frankly, is just too rudimentary and predictable to work as an effective character study.
Sure, you want to root for Joy's success, but really, she's a fairly uninteresting protagonist. While there's a lot of intrigue stemming from De Niro and Joy's surprisingly helpful ex-husband, a lot of the supporting cast just seems superfluous, especially her catty sister and moribund mama, who spends 80 percent of the movie glued to old VHS copies of a Guiding Light pastiche (and the other 20 percent trying to bed a Haitian plumber, who simply disappears after the first act.)
Even at half-speed, however, the cast does what it can to keep the story afloat, and Russell's direction - while certainly less sure-handed than some of his previous productions - prevents the film from ever becoming laborious. At the end of the day, Joy is an entertaining, albeit instantly disposable and fairly forgettable, little picture; although, considering the general normalcy of the content, I have to ponder why the filmmakers ever thought the premise could entail a genuinely great movie at all.
Two and a half tofu dogs out of four.