There’s something inherently engaging about a self made success story, an attractive quality that David O. Russell employs to great effect in Joy, his most recent, and my most favourite of his films so far. He’s a fascinating director who’s work always has an oddball quality to it, whether worn obviously on it’s sleeve (I Heart Huckabees, of which I’m not a fan), or subtly funnelled into a genre picture (the excellent war flick Three Kings), there’s just an undercurrent that’s decidedly south of normal humming through his whole filmography. Joy is one part hyper-dysfunctional family drama, one part autobiographical rise to fame with a hefty dose of comedy thrown in the mix. Jennifer Lawrence has beyond proven her solid gold talent as a miraculous leading lady by now, and she’s the acting equivalent of a truckload of C-4 here as Joy, a self made millionaire who’s persistence and strength in spirit led to her pioneering a revolutionary cleaning product. It’s loosely based on several true stories, but Russell is more intent on letting his actors run wild and giving us a frenetic ‘fly on the Wall’ glimpse into Joy’s upended family life. She’s basically the rock to all of her kin, the only one with a sane hair on her head and her priorities in order. Her dad (Robert Deniro) is an irresponsible man child in a tailspin of a midlife crisis, her mom (Virginia Madsen) is an unpredictable basket case, while her ex (Edgar Ramirez) deludes himself about a would be singing career. They all live at home, contribute not a penny to the household, plus she’s got a young daughter to look out for as well. Quite a situation to be in, and the only one standing in her corner is her loving grandmother, played warmly by a brilliant Diane Ladd. The film isn’t so much about plot as a measurable substance and more just how things happen from scene to scene via chaos and commotion. Everyone is so verbose, fired up and out of control that we spend swaths of time simply listening to them argue and rant before realizing we’ve been discreetly subjected to character development the whole time, a clever, patent aesthetic that Russell also used in his American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook. Joy dreams of a less crazy life for her daughter, and her miracle mop invention may just be the ticket there, if she can avoid her whole unruly clan tagging along for the ride. Bradley Cooper is great as a stern patent kingpin, and the scenes that show how television sales play out at headquarters have a studious, hypnotically meticulous rhythm to them that show Russell in full stylistic swing. The show belongs to Lawrence though, who’s a captivating wonder in every scene, her fever pitched exasperation at the people around her a tangible force of nature, her resilience and determination a source of inspiration. I like this film best of Russell’s filmography because it’s the most focused on people rather than plot. In Silver Linings, which is a lovely film don’t get me wrong,
the characters were believable and true, but they still serviced the plot which was rooted in an obvious theme of mental illness. In American Hustle, The shtick was conmen and their world, the characters sourced from that and existing to run on that racetrack. Joy is about an everyday girl who patents a kitchen mop. It’s benign, barebones and just lets the characters roam in a daily life arena that’s relatable, malleable and feels down to earth.