Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco. Directed by David O. Russell.
I’ve now seen four films directed by David O. Russell, and they are all better than they should be, but they’re probably a bit overrated at the same time. Of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, only American Hustle is consistently good, with strong performances by every actor and a story that looks on paper like something to make a movie out of.
This is why the synopsis of Joy doesn’t matter much: with a Russell film, it’s not really the story that sticks with you. It’s the acting, direction, dialogue, and feeling you leave the theater with. Since Joy has many of Russell’s crew (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro), there was reason to think it could be at least as good as those last three.
But it’s not. Perhaps Amy Adams is the missing ingredient.
Joy’s failure is not Lawrence’s fault. She’s her usual, dependable, thoughtful self, somehow making Russell’s terrible dialogue believable where the other actors can’t. I get what Russell’s trying to do—he sets the film up as a fairy tale (complete with step-sister, step-parents, and Cinderella motifs galore), and he includes a voice-over narration by Diane Ladd (who plays Joy’s grandmother) that sounds like a fairy tale, and he gives the actors lines that sound like lines from a bedtime story, which all sounds like it could work, but none of it does. Except the Jennifer Lawrence stuff.
Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the real-life inventor of the Miracle Mop, a mop you can wring without putting your hands on the mop head. Her ex-husband still lives in her basement, her father moves back in whenever he’s between girlfriends, her mom stays in bed all day watching soap operas, and her step-sister takes every opportunity to make her feel like crap. But someone has a connection to this new TV shopping network thing, and Joy puts everything on the line to chase happily-ever-after.
The movie would suck if not for Lawrence’s meaningful grasp on her character, which she best displays when interacting with anyone whose name is not on the movie poster. It’s a small role, but Dascha Polanco (she’s Dayanara Diaz in Orange is the New Black) as Joy’s best friend since childhood is the only actor who seems to exist in the same plane as Lawrence, so when they’re sharing screen time, the movie feels real and normal. Just about every other scene feels like those weird infomercials hosted by actors you used to admire: strange, meaningless, and kind of sad.