It is rare to see a filmmaker so thoroughly reinvented himself over the course of his career like David O. Russell did. His newest film, Joy, is his fourth since he disappeared into the ether after failing to get the comedy Nailed off the ground (which, oddly enough, was actually released earlier this year as Accidental Love without Russell’s name on it) and reemerged as a big time Hollywood award director with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Those three films, an inspirational boxing movie, a romantic comedy and a Scorsese-style heist picture, were right in the wheelhouses of popular audiences and Guilds alike. Long gone is the anarchic spirit of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings or Spanking the Monkey. The films barely feel like the same person made them.
Joy finds Russell teaming with Jennifer Lawrence for the third straight film. She plays the titular character, a divorced mother of two with a comically outsized family life that includes a soap opera obsessed bed-ridden mother (Virginia Madsen) and her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) sharing the basement with her ornery father (Robert DeNiro, also appearing in his third straight Russell film after his cameo in American Hustle). Joy grew up with aspirations to become an inventor, but her destructive home life and her terrible job seem to have stamped all the creativity from her body. That is until inspiration strikes and she designs a self-wringing mop that she is confident will revolutionize home cleaning. She manages to convince a higher up at QVC (Bradley Cooper, because of course Bradley Cooper is in this) to give her a shot at hawking the product on the air. The mop becomes an overnight sensation, but the world is a rough place, and Joy soon finds her newfound success to not be as fulfilling as it could be, especially as the sharks begin circling.
It is honestly amazing how quickly Joy manages to venture off the rails. From its opening montage, framed by an insipidly treacle-soaked narration from Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd), the cracks immediately begin to show. David O. Russell’s films, both before and after his rebirth, have always prided themselves on chaotic dialogue, filling scenes with as many characters as possible yelling over each other talking at cross purposes, but when this happens here right after that dreadful scene-setting opening, it feels perfunctory, like noise for the sake of noise instead of Russell’s standard noise for the sake of character development. Perhaps it’s indicative of him going to the same well one too many times. Regardless of the reason for the diminishing returns, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the first act of Joy is a colossal misfire. It is a comedy that is never funny, a drama that is never resonant. The script is so superficial and halfhearted, so mechanical in the way it hits its story beats, so devoid of character development that even the likes of Lawrence and DeNiro cannot resuscitate it.
It is only when Cooper arrives on the scene that the film flirts with finding a pulse. Perhaps it’s the well worn chemistry between Lawrence and Cooper, who have starred together in at least four films at this point, but there is a different tenor to the QVC scenes. Cooper conducts the presenters and phone pool like an orchestra, the camera sweeping and swooping in a fantastical way. It is so engaging and exciting that it makes the rest of the film feel even worse in comparison. And just as soon as it breathes life into the proceedings, the spirit of it all fades away, returning again to the screeching uninspired family dramedy that so dominated the first half. But the second time around it becomes even more exasperating; Russell has shown a glimpse of what he can do at his best (not that this is his best, but even his less than impressive work prior to Joy at least had spirit), further emphasizing just how poor the majority of this film is.
What must be intrinsically understood about Joy (and trust that this is not exactly a hidden theme) is the fact that, beyond her, her ex-husband and her childhood friend (played by Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco), every single character in this film is dumber than a particularly large bag of rocks. She spends so much of the movie’s two hours receiving comically bad advice, whether from her father, her father’s new independently wealthy girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini, looking more and more like Liza Minelli by the day), her mother or her business partners that it eventually ends up reflecting poorly on her as a character. There is simply no empathy, no emotion at all really, for Joy or any other characters for that matter. Lawrence does what she can, but both the film and her role are dead on arrival. More than anything, Joy never argues for its own existence, feeling like it exists purely because David O. Russell hadn’t released a movie in a few years and the time had simply come to make another one. This is not a film that feels more like a contractual obligation than a passion project, the uninspired third album a band releases to get out of a bad record deal.