The Oscar-bait train is well and truly chugging along as we look at our first film of the year, from the Russell/Lawrence/Cooper/De Niro team that found previously critical and award success with 2013’s Silver Linings Playbook, a film I had mixed feelings towards, and 2014’s American Hustle, a film I rather liked. Since then Cooper continued to court awards glory with American Sniper while Lawrence closed off The Hunger Games, but now they are all back together for another collaboration, taking a shot at the inspirational biopic sub-genre, a variety of films that, it is fair to say, have taken centre stage at events like the Oscars and Golden Globes over the last few years. Was Joy an apt title, a good start to the 2016 year in film? Or was it another bland standing ovation style biopic, too in love with its subject matter, and too like some of the teams more disappointing efforts?
The titular Joy (Lawrence), is a struggling single mother in the early 90’s, bemoaning the uninspiring way her life has unfolded, surrounded by figures not exactly helping her be the best she can be: an inconsiderate father (Robert De Niro), his shrill foreign girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), a soap-opera obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen), a friendly but unreliable ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) and a nasty half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm), with only her supportive grandmother (Diane Ladd) giving her any optimism. When Joy decides to go for broke with her idea of a self-wringing mop, TV executives like Neil Walker (Cooper) offer a possible path to success, but there are pitfalls aplenty as well.
I have rapidly gotten a bit tired of the inspirational biopic, overly sentimentalised looks at famous figures that err far too much towards hero worship. The Imitation Game was one of the last that I really enjoyed (Selma doesn’t count), and things like the aforementioned American Sniper or the more acclaimed The Theory Of Everything never held much attraction for me. Joy, in my eyes, is a strange parody of that almost, and not in a good way. Russell’s biopic is barely that, so fantastical do some elements appear to be. His Joy is more of a demented fairy tale, a film that wants to mixt he real life story of entrepreneur Joy Mangano with a very strange soap-opera style tone.
The soap opera and the fairy tale feel come from things like the narration of Diane Ladd’s grandmother, the rapid changes in circumstances and, most importantly of all, the incredibly horrible characters that surround Joy herself, wicked stepmothers transplanted into the 1990’s. If Joy is the story of how this woman went from near the bottom of the pile all the way to the top, you can be damn sure that David O. Russell wants everyone around her to be dragging her down to some degree. So off-putting are most of the supporting cast, deadbeats who give Joy terrible advice and then blame her when it all goes wrong without any sense of irony, that it’s actually kind of hard to get invested in the story. “Parasites” doesn’t begin to cover it, and it would all be fine if it has just reined back a little bit.
It’s just all too over the top, and hard to take in anyway seriously, as you see her father blunder around with bad legal help, and her half-sister gloatingly try and trip her up at every conceivable opportunity (even during a funeral!). From start to finish, Joy is surrounded by awful, awful individuals, so stunningly banal in their evil that they are in no way interesting characters. Beyond anything else, this was the part of Joy that I was unable to shake off once the credits had finally rolled, the memory of how utterly charmless and grating so many of the people in it were.
If Russell wants to make a point about the way women are treated by society, he could make it a damn sight better than this, a tale so stretched by its allegory that it is breaking apart at the seams (the opening, with the stilted soap opera, was a blunt metaphorical instrument). Seeing Joy struggle and struggle and struggle, while the rest of the cast line up to take shots at her, was something that was very hard to stay with after a while, and Joy is groaning under its two hour+ running time. Joy seems to exist merely to be a punching bag for family, friends, business rivals and the evil forces of corporate America, and every minor success is immediately followed by a terrible failure. This kind of misery-covered tale can come good – I have to go back to the likes of 12 Years A Slave yet again as an example – but it needs a good script, good characters, good narrative. Joy has precious little of any of that.
And so, it all falls to Jennifer Lawrence, again, much as it did in the similarly underwhelming Mockingjay – Part Two. I don’t think she’s capable of a bad performance, and there is something very endearing in her Joy, a poor woman refusing to let opportunities pass by, and getting back up after every undeserved blow. But while Lawrence is great, you could tell that she wasn’t truly giving Joy all that she could give, and one can hardly blame Lawrence for maybe being a bit tired of roles where she is required, Christ-like, to be the sacrificial dartboard for the films sins. Even with that, her Joy was still an interesting enough character that I was ready to be swept away in her troubles and the effort to overcome them.
But Joy just won’t let you do that, not with another sleepwalking De Niro performance as the awful father, not with a tired Elizabeth Rohm, not with only a vaguely engaging Ramirez as the ex-husband, the only other character of the immediate Joy circle that you might want to follow along with. Russell seems to know this as well, which is why his camera is just locked on Lawrence and her face for so much of Joy, as if he wants to squeeze out the rest of the cast who are just not pulling their weight to the degree required. But it isn’t just them.
Their sub-plots are uninspired and lazy, and Russell’s clumsy way of jumping back and forth, between sub-plots and between different points in the narrative timeline, doesn’t help matters. I don’t care about the mom in an almost comatose state watching soap-operas, who has so little to do that her brief interjections by Joy’s end were annoying distractions. I don’t care about the doting grandmother who can’t stop praising Joy, and whose monologues on the potential of women came off as more sanctimonious than inspiring. I really don’t care about the dad’s struggling auto-repair business, and his contemptable attitude towards his loved ones. And I don’t really care for a clunky glimpse into Joy’s marriage to the struggling lounge singer, complete with her Dad acting like the biggest jackass imaginable.
The tone jumps from deadly serious, with the most heart-wrenching kind of emotional outbursts, to the sort of stupid comedy that so infected Silver Linings Playbook, and made me dislike it so much. Joy really is a film that is all over the place in terms of tone, message and character, with its script, so full of horrible put-downs on Joy, not exactly lighting the world on fire, trite and dull in equal measures. The overall story of Mangano is really nothing to get too excited about when it comes down to it: the boiler-plate legend of a working class hero overcoming the odds to make it good, with all of the steely eyed determination and take no prisoners attitude that the Academy of Arts and Visual Sciences usually loves.
Russell’s visual direction, with Linus Sandgren of American Hustle beside him, is also nothing to really write home about. Joy moves from a white to blue palette, never injecting proceedings with any great amount of colour, unless it is in the QVC centred sequences which speak on the lie of presentation when it comes to commerce and retail. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was thinking of Goodfellas in the way the scene let the camera dip, pan and follow the principals about in a very period-specific set-piece.
Things are less good on the more personal side. The intense commitment to keeping things focused on Lawrence – even the promotional material can’t get over it – becomes very jarring after a while, and one almost wants to go on set, find Russell, and tell him to just ease-up on the close-ups a little bit, give Lawrence some room to breathe, and maybe focus some time on the Oscar winners in the rest of the cast. I wonder if Russell was really the right man for the job here, so different is this project to the likes of American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook in the required visual style.
Enter Bradley Cooper to try and rescue things, and his scenes are actually Joy’s best, Cooper more at home in his role than Lawrence was in hers. Watching the QVC mastermind conduct the sales of jewellery and other items to homes across America, like a maestro in front of an orchestra, were the only moments when Joy came alive for me, and these sections were also easily the best in terms of wordplay, with Cooper’s brief monologue on the possibilities of success in America, contrasted with the struggles of Joy, perhaps the only really stand-out moment when everything came together just right in Joy.
Part of me really did wonder why we weren’t seeing a film about the Walker character, whose life seemed far more worthy of one from what I had seen thus far, which was largely a metaphorical flagellation of the Joy character, to be doubled down on in the films last act. Cooper’s Walker comes and goes, and Joy is always better for his presence, and Russell was wise to dodge a romantic plot that other directors would have naturally moved towards.
Joy stumbles towards its concluding act, as if the director suddenly remembered that he had to pull together a happy ending, one that arrives with the sort of ease and “hey, presto!” style chicanery that made a mockery of much of the suffering that came before, before a rapid-fire epilogue sequence whose sentimentality and depictions of happy ever after were well and truly unearned. It’s nice to see a film of this type with a woman in the lead – standing ovation biopic neglects the female sex as much as other sub-genres – but this was simply not the kind of story that I could find enjoyable.
I think what we have here is a director, and an acting duo, who have gotten a bit too comfortable with each other, and thus are uninterested in being all that they can be as a team anymore. Joy is just stagnation for too many of the players involved, and it comes across in every misfiring bit of comedy, every overwrought moment of mawkishness, and every needless brutal attack on the titular character. With Cooper relegated to a supporting role and Lawrence not exactly looking as up for it as she normally is, Russell needed the rest of his production to really come good, but the supporting principals, script, the visual direction and the overall narrative are disappointing at best.
The story of Joy Mangano would almost be better off if Russell had gone down the traditional standing ovation route, not that I begrudge him the effort of trying something a bit different. But different doesn’t always mean good. Too long, too full of bad characters and too varied in tone, theme and message, Joy is not a film that I can recommend. Unfortunately, 2016 is off to a bad start.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).