David O. Russell seems to have made a self-indulgent attempt to return to his quirky filmmaking style which garnered him a legion of lovers following “I Heart Huckabees” and “Flirting with Disaster.” However, it seems he tried to mix his “acclaimed” straight-forward style that has made him a bonafide Oscar favorite with “The Fighter” and “American Hustle.” While this blend on the surface sounds like a compromise for fans of both his styles that feel one is inferior to the other, I’m not sure how many will get on board with his bland, uninteresting take with “Joy.” Starring Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy” manages to have the actress grow within the realms of her calculated and well-regarded work in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” five years ago but be plagued by the inevitable problem most had with her casting, she’s simply too young. You have to suspend reality far too much to see Lawrence as a mid-30’s mother of two. This aligns with the long-running internet joke that Russell is on a mission to make a 35-year-old woman. Guess he doesn’t know that he can just wait ten years and he’ll have it right in front of him.
“Joy” tells the story of a family across four generations and the woman (not named “Joy Magano” but clearly is) who rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.
Hearing rumors of the original script that was written by Academy Award nominated screenwriter Annie Mumolo, Russell’s dirty hands ruin any interesting areas Mumolo was looking to explore. Instead what we have, a tonally awkward film, with a bizarre set of characters that aren’t fully fleshed out, and doing nothing more but terrible things to one another for no other reason of “dysfunction.” He owes Mumolo an apology. Russell even plays with the “existential” weirdness that engulfed his 2004 film “I Heart Huckabees,” but falls flat in his reasoning for using such a tactic. He’s also become obsessed with the 70’s, needlessly utilizing tracks from the era that are just placed there for bopping your head and tapping your foot. It’s not as clever or cool as it thinks it is.
Despite an outstanding set of actors, which is common with Russell films these days, I never cared enough about, or at least long enough, to walk with “Joy” on this journey. The film comes to life in its sequences with her QVC pitches alongside the great Bradley Cooper, who just continues to stand out in just about anything he touches.
Jennifer Lawrence is one of the more enjoyable parts of the film. She shows an active aggression to her character that manages to spark interest from time to time. Due to no fault of her own, she’s held back by the very casting of her in the role. With time and experience, Lawrence will continue to grow as one of our most gifted actresses. She can rip into a scene with an effortless ease, just a scenery-chewing powerhouse at times, perhaps a new, more adventurous director will do her some real good. Lawrence manages to find the hurt and pain even when the script suggests otherwise, just begging the audience to support her on her quest, which at times we do.
The rest of the cast is thinned out skinnier than a starving contestant on “Survivor.” Robert DeNiro, who plays Joy’s father Rudy, has no single purpose other than beat the same message over Joy’s head regarding money. Russell gives him outrageous behavior, that’s never addressed, and we’re to witness as bystanders. The fabulous Édgar Ramírez stands as the most likable character, but that’s mostly due to our basic need to see Ramirez in as many features as possible these days. Isabella Rossellini‘s inconsistent “Trudy” falls back and forth between sweet and salty. Turning from an eager helper to Joy’s franchise, she quickly transform into a laughable “mafiosa” figure that misses every mark she’s afforded. The beautiful Virginia Madsen and legendary Diane Ladd are utterly wasted. Madsen’s tries her best to elevate a woman in love with soap operas while Ladd is given narrating duties to generate an emotional response to certain events that feel empty and hollow.
There’s a good movie in there somewhere. Static and dreary, the muddled storytelling offers little cohesion. Jumping from one set piece to the next, “Joy” is just forceful rather than reflective. It feels like a lawnmower than David O. Russell was trying to get started, but we just spend two hours watching it run for a few minutes before dying again. It’s a struggle.
“Joy” opens on Christmas Day and is distributed by 20th Century Fox.