Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramirez, Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Elisabeth Röhm, Dascha Polanco
Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren
Music by David Campbell, West Dylan Thordson
Edited by Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, Christopher Tellefsen
Written by David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
Rating: 7 out of 10
Joy is simply and shortly disappointing. It’s always a problem if you have really high expectations for a movie, any movie, but how could you not with these names attached? With two movies as great as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle preceding them? But Joy never lives up to those energetic miracles and it’s hard to pin down what its problem is. It is incoherent in its mood, its message, its style. It wants too much and doesn’t know what it wants at the same time. Jennifer Lawrence is as amazing as she can be and even in bad movies I’d never get tired of watching her act. But this movie doesn’t work and it’s worse as failed potential than as an actual movie. Some of the acting by some actors is cringeworthy, the whole soap opera framing device is as dysfunctional as it is suddenly discarded and the structure of the script never achieves any kind of flow that this movie needs. The narration seems off, the ending is frustrating and Bradley Cooper’s role almost not necessary. Despite all of these (and many other) flaws, the movie is a collection of good parts that never add up. It’s one of the worst kinds of movies, the well-intended, ambitious mess that is worse because it could have been so good.
I think one of the biggest problems of the movie might really be its good intentions. The movie literally wrecks itself over being a feminist movie, showing Jennifer Lawrence as Joy, the ambitious, driven, determined, optimistic protagonist that just keeps going, despite all the obstacles that everyone throws at her. And Lawrence, being Lawrence, is extremely good at playing that role, making you wonder just how she can both play a heroine for teenagers around the world and a mom of two who becomes a surprise entrepreneur. None of the movie’s flaws are her fault. She is that amazing character, that woman who can do anything but shows how exhausting this can be. She is not perfect, but doesn’t take shit from anyone and rejects being pushed into any gender roles. In concept, this is great for feminist cinema.
The problem lies in David O. Russell’s script and directing. As I said before, he doesn’t seem to know how to work with this story, but seems too intent on making it a feminist movie. But it feels as if he doesn’t trust Lawrence so the obstacles he creates feel artificial and forced. Everyone is against her and unwilling to see her talent, her father (Robert de Niro, nevertheless great), his new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini who seems like a caricature) and her sister (Elisabeth Röhm). They and the world they inhabit feel like a mess, but neither a realistic nor a truly satirical one, but somewhere in-between. Again, there is this soap opera world that her mother (Virginia Madsen, a revelation) falls into but it never becomes clear what the intention is. Is Joy in danger of falling into that world too because of her dreams? Once she realizes her idea, the soap opera world is almost completely gone, an artistic choice that is completely befuddling since the movie opens with it. All of it just seems to exist so that Joy can overcome it and that actually works against the feminist approach. It is hard to celebrate her, if the hurdles seem artificial.
On top of all of that, we have her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) constantly spelling out the movie’s themes which makes matters worse. And then there is also her daughter Christie (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby), finishing out the line from Mimi over Joy to her, of the strong women who keep everything going. This is another intriguing idea but is also too much because we get it already. And Russell goes so far to basically hide Joy’s son Tommy as if he doesn’t count as a boy. Why is he neglected? But then again, her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramirez, very good) proves to be the most supportive character to her. There is the whole "paper farm" imagery that is beautiful and hamfisted at the same time. None of it makes a lot of sense and it’s a real shame.
The strongest scene is after Joy wakes up and commands everyone around to get her idea done. She tells her ex and her father to move out and uses her daughter's crayons to draw the Miracle Mop. She knows what to do, what to say and seems unstoppable. It is captivating, extremely well acted and well made. It's the strongest sign how good this movie could have been.