The superior performer/director collaborations in movies work on a chemistry of dichotomy. The actor or actress respects the creative material given to them and raises their game. In turn, the director knows how to get the most and best out of the performer and puts them in the right position to succeed. With the new Christmas release “Joy,” Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and filmmaker David O. Russell have now collaborated on three films. The four of them are clearly on the same wavelength with respect and creativity.
The problematic factor for this team of collaborators is the diminishing returns of their final products. Showing a case of beginner’s luck, “Silver Linings Playbook” was a crowd-pleasing quirky romance that netted Lawrence an Oscar. Full of promise, “American Hustle” was an overrated and misguided attempt at Scorsese Lite. “Joy” now arrives with a random mix of events that may begin to insinuate the 14th century expression of “going to the well once too often” for this group. Like the idiom’s definition, Russell and company have taken repeated risks and have now pushed their luck too far.
In the lead position, Jennifer Lawrence stars as the ambitious Joy Magano. We meet her in 1990 as her grandmother Mimi (the long lost Diane Ladd) narrates our story. Joy is a smart girl, a former valedictorian, with invention ideas that strike like earthquakes. The trouble is she’s saddled with an inept and helpless family of flawed failures that leech her energy. Her mother Terry (Virgina Madsen) is a phobic, soap opera-obsessed mess long divorced from her father Rudy (De Niro), a pushy garage owner and rowdy jerk who overreacts to everything. Joy herself has been divorced for two years from Tony (Edgar Ramirez), with whom she shares two children.
All of them, including the ex and kids, live under one roof in Deer Park, New York. Joy is anchored down as the one only one who can maintain this home and family’s sanity, burning a Cinderella-level candle at both ends. Inspiration strikes and she hashes out what will later be called the Miracle Mop, a self-wringing and washable cotton fiber mop. She sinks all of her own money and borrowed money from her father’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to develop a few prototypes. After Joy strikes out selling them on her own, Tony gets her in the door for a pitch meeting with QVC, at this point still in its early years. Mustering up the courage, she meets and wows product executive Neil Walker (Cooper). He gives Joy and her product its big televised shot, but, with success, the debts, entanglements, and competition only add to the uphill stress of this success story.
Equal to the scattered mess of personalities within this central family, the film itself doesn’t know what it wants to be and that’s a large flaw. “Joy” drifts through peaks and valleys of comedy, drama, and satire. It cannot settle on a balanced route. At one moment, the film can be a touching generational story of the Magano women. Little flashbacks and reoccurring dreams play out to patch together Joy’s past hardships and ever-present fears that define and flesh out our many characters’ quirks. In the next moment, “Joy” will operate as a peppy behind-the-scenes story of business and television. On the whole, it is quite the oddball affair of erratic events. With that haphazard construction, too little of “Joy” meshes and the tonal transitions are all over the place.
For one positive, Jennifer Lawrence is never the reason this film misses. There is no doubt Russell brings the best out of Lawrence. No other director has come remotely close to harnessing her immense talent in the right way. As Joy, she is an emotional and determined force on-screen. Lawrence’s ability to rise to the occasion wills this film along. Russell gives her a compelling character and she goes out there and makes it look easy and natural. With anyone less, “Joy” would flounder to an irrecoverable level.
David O. Russell loves his ensembles, but the only character or actor who can keep up with Lawrence is Bradley Cooper’s disciplined TV exec. His presence as Neil makes “Joy” a different picture. He gets Joy away from her overbearing family and enlivens the sacrifices as Joy’s beaming ray of successful hope and aspiration. Back at home, even with the presence of De Niro, the spark disappears and the film loses a tremendous amount of focus. When Lawrence and Cooper are working together, “Joy” soars. There is enough present for a decent crowd-pleaser, but those moments are fleeting and the rest will drag you down.
Lesson #1: Families can be a cumbersome weight– Joy is up to her eyeballs in family drama and the stress is unbearable at times. She knows she is the best and only one who can fix people who don’t want to fix themselves. The difficulty for her becomes who is there to help the person who is always helping everyone else when she needs support.
Lesson #2: Bad business advice can sink ambition— There is an angle of “Joy” that comes across like a cautionary tale for ambitious ideas. It pushes the message that every good profitable idea requires an inordinate amount of risk, money, and resources to get off the ground. When any step of that process is botched or circumvented, the entire project could be ruined. Build a good team you trust and plan for contingencies.
Lesson #3: Achieving unrealized dreams and potential— Stripping away the family issues that steal screen time, “Joy” is a quintessential rags-to-riches story of the American Dream and self-made success. We learn that Joy has always had dreams and intelligent potential, but never received the chances to achieve them. Her determination to push forward and finally do something for herself is what leads to her great success.