Friday, January 1, 2016

In Theaters: JOY (2015)

(US - 2015)

Written and directed by David O. Russell. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm, Ken Howard, Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Laura Wright, Maurice Benard, John Enos, Alexander Cook, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Melissa Rivers. (PG-13, 124 mins)

With JOY, a loose biopic of inventor, entrepreneur, and HSN personality Joy Mangano, writer/director David O. Russell has started to coast on formulaic tropes that stretch back to 2010's THE FIGHTER and 2012's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Like those two justifiably acclaimed films, JOY has a down-and-out protagonist trying to scrape by while being helped but more often hindered by an ostensibly well-meaning but absurdly dysfunctional family. We had Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) in THE FIGHTER, struggling to succeed in the ring while dealing with a crackhead brother (Christian Bale), a pushy mother (Melissa Leo), and a small army of almost comically unpleasant sisters, and Pat Solitano, Jr.(Bradley Cooper) in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, struggling to come out on top with his bipolar disorder while falling for a bitter young widow (Jennifer Lawrence) and dealing with his wacky friends and family, headed by his superstitious, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed dad (Robert De Niro). Lawrence, De Niro and Cooper all star in JOY (all also appeared in Russell's 2013 Scorsese homage AMERICAN HUSTLE), and Lawrence's title character is largely cut from the same cloth as Micky Ward and Pat Solitano.

Once-promising high-school valedictorian Joy is an airport ticket clerk and divorced mother of two struggling to support everyone in her family: kindly, encouraging grandmother MiMi (Diane Ladd), her soap opera-addicted, shut-in mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), and even her ex-husband Anthony (Edgar Ramirez), who still lives in the basement. She also has to periodically take in her dad Rudy (De Niro), when he's in between girlfriends, and puts up with older, bitter half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm)--Rudy's daughter by his first wife--who constantly bad-mouths Joy to her own children. Fed up with none of her dreams coming to fruition and everyone's dependence on her, Joy long ago abandoned her gift of creativity when real life set in. After mopping up a spill and cutting herself on broken glass while hand-wringing the mop, Joy is inspired to create a single-looped thread, self-wringing mop and gets investment backing from Rudy's newest lady friend, wealthy widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). Eventually, Joy gets a meeting with QVC exec Neil Walker (Cooper) and after a couple of stumbles that lead to Joy going on the air herself to sell it, the "Miracle Mop" becomes a huge hit, but Joy is unprepared for the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world of commerce. 95% of the film is Joy's struggle with little regard to the time frame, then it ends with a five-minute wrap-up where years have gone by and she's suddenly a huge business mogul with inventors coming to make product deals with her as if she's Vito Corleone doling out favors on his daughter's wedding day.

At face value, JOY can be seen as an uplifting tale of determination and can-do spirit as the underdog achieves the American Dream and overcomes the obstacles to become a self-made success. But the story is so predictable and the characters surrounding Joy such unlikable and quirky cartoons that it never rings true. Russell seems to vacillate between lighthearted Coen Bros. and less-precious Wes Anderson throughout. Russell isn't as interested in production design as Anderson, but character-wise, it fits that mold. It's often like THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS restaged as a blue-collar HUDSUCKER PROXY. JOY is almost defeated by a bungled opening half-hour that jumps all over the place and never gets the groundwork and exposition effectively conveyed (it's telling that there's four credited editors). We're shown Joy's family as the train wreck they are and get little sense of what brought them to this place of almost outrageous self-delusion. Anthony is constantly regarded as a lazy, deadbeat fuck-up by the family, but he ends up being Joy's rock while everyone else except the loving MiMi--even the allegedly business-savvy Trudy, who insists they don't need a patent attorney--gives Joy terrible advice and almost actively thwarts her progress. Scenes sometimes end in the middle of sentences--possibly an ill-advised stylistic choice--and there's huge gaps in the story that are simply left hanging: does Joy ever quit her airport job? We see her being told she's getting moved to the night shift, then her job is never mentioned again. Why is Peggy such a bitch to Joy? Why do we see so much of Joy's daughter but never even get a clear look at her son's face? Joy Mangano (her last name is never mentioned onscreen) has patented over 100 inventions but we only hear of two: the Miracle Mop and the Huggable Hanger.

Russell has directed Lawrence, Christian Bale, and Melissa Leo to Oscars (along with nominations for Cooper, De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and Amy Adams), with second nominations after the win for Lawrence and Bale. He's certainly an actor's director and JOY intermittently works in fits and starts thanks to its cast: 25-year-old Lawrence is miscast and a decade too young to play someone who quit college 17 years earlier to take charge of the family after her parents' divorce (Mangano was already in her mid-30s when she invented the Miracle Mop), but manages to get by on her energy and screen presence. De Niro has a couple of good De Niro moments (he's really funny in the flashback to Joy and Anthony's wedding, and when he unloads on Terry with "You're like a gas leak--we can't see you, we can't smell you, but you're silently killing all of us!"), Cooper only has a few scenes, but his tour of the QVC operation with Joy is probably Russell's most inspired sequence in the film, and Ladd provides some much-needed warmth and humanity as the loving MiMi. Ramirez is alright but isn't given much to do but stand around, but almost everyone else--Madsen with her gaudy, unsightly eyewear, Rohm constantly glowering and seething, Rossellini's inconsistent shifting from kindly widow to ruthless shark--is stuck playing unplayable characters. Madsen comes off the worst by far, with her pathetic helplessness and her addiction to a terrible daytime soap--featuring characters played by soap vets Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and John Enos, among others--getting entirely too much screen time (it seems like it'll function as a Greek chorus of sorts, but with Lucci, Mills, and the others giving intentionally terrible line readings, it ultimately plays as a cheap, lazy recurring gag that doesn't really belong in this movie). Madsen's Terry also gets a love interest in Haitian plumber Toussaint (Jimmy Jean-Louis) in a quickly abandoned subplot that never seems plausible and goes nowhere fast. There's probably a very good movie hiding somewhere in the middling misfire JOY ends up being. It feels like Russell is half-assing it, banking on the track record of the proven Lawrence/Cooper/De Niro magic to carry the weight and compensate for the cut corners and shortcomings of a script that maybe needed another polish or two before it was ready to roll.

1 comment:

  1. She looks too young. I thought her shopgirl uniform was a school uniform first time I saw the trailer. She looks that young.