Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Robert De Niro (The Godfather Part II), Edgar Ramirez (Deliver Us From Evil), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Diane Ladd (Chinatown), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Writer/Director: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes
Release Date: 25 December (US), 1 January (UK)
David O. Russell’s been on a great roll of late, his last three films all being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I personally was underwhelmed by his last effort American Hustle, but both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook are excellent movies more than worthy of the accolades they received. Joy has been going a little more under the radar however, its presence this awards season overshadowed by bigger pictures and the marketing evasive of what exactly the movie is about. The lack of excitement around it may lead you to believe Joy is one of those movies looking for Oscar attention but failing to get it due to mediocrity, hoping to fly by on name recognition and doomed to join denizens of similarly forgotten “prestige pictures”…but you’d be wrong.
Loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Magano, Joy is above all about the struggle to pursue your passions. Semi-linearly telling her story from childhood to millionaire, the film focuses on Joy’s (Lawrence) constant struggles with her squabbling family and vicious businessmen that send her constantly slamming into failure. It’s a rags-to-riches tale, but one where our heroine is thrown right back to rags several heartbreaking times. But with the struggle being so much harder, it makes the moments of real joy (badum tish!) feel far more satisfying. It sinks you far better into Joy’s mindset and every time she falls you get just as pissed as she does. It’s a tough film to watch at points, but by its conclusion it’s uplifting and inspirational. The film is well paced and consistently engaging, but it does have a tendency to get a bit experimental and surreal. There are several dream sequences in the film, all of which related to the soap opera Joy’s mother (Madsen) obsessively watches, and whilst they are enjoyable in a kitschy way they feel a bit out of place and are overbearing in how they incessantly hammer home Joy’s psychological condition.
Whether you love her to bits or think she’s overexposed, you cannot deny Jennifer Lawrence is a phenomenal actress when given the right material and clearly Russell knows how to get the best out of her. Her performance as Joy is what ultimately makes the film work so well, portraying a very complex character who evolves from put-upon housewife to commanding woman of business whilst remaining relatable and sympathetic even in her darkest moments. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off and Lawrence acquits herself flawlessly, crafting yet another memorable character to add to her quickly growing collection. The supporting cast is negligible when compared to her, but a lot of them are fantastic in their own right. Virginia Madsen is particularly impressive as Joy’s reclusive mother, and Edgar Ramirez delivers a career best performance as the ex-husband with even more unrealistic ambitions. Robert De Niro is there to do what Robert De Niro does best, and Bradley Cooper’s role is small but vital and he does a lot with his small amount of screen time. The only person that lets the side down from a character perspective is Elisabeth Röhm as Joy’s half-sister Peggy. Röhm does her best with the material, but the role of Peggy feels utterly spiteful and shallowly written. The rest of the family all have their annoying foibles but they all genuine moments of humanity too. Peggy never gets a moment to be human and is purely there to aggravate Joy; maybe it went down like that in real life, but it gets to the point where it’s almost like she’s trying to make Joy fail.
One of the positives I can say about Russell’s work on American Hustle is that he really nailed the time period, and he does similarly great work with Joy. He captures that transitional period from the 1980s to the 1990s extremely well in how the fashions and designs don’t quite fit into either decade specifically; it would have been easy to favour one but they found a good balance. The cinematography is strong too, especially how well it emulates the look of soap operas and shopping channels in certain scenes, looking just cheesy enough to capture the feel without seeming forced.
I can understand why Joy has gotten lost in the shuffle this awards season and I doubt it’ll even make my list of favourites, but that’s no reason to not go see it for yourself. It’s quirky and a bit uneven, but overall the film does a fantastic job of taking what might have been a pretty standard story and making it different and impactful by doubling down on those low moments. Too many inspirational stories like this gloss over how frighteningly difficult pursuing your dreams can be, and instead Joy is completely honest and realistic about the entire situation. In other hands this material could have been complete tripe, but Russell and Lawrence elevate it into something more than worth watching.
FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10