David O. Russell continues his study on group dynamics within the down-and-out and hard on their luck with Jennifer Lawrence showcase Joy. The director’s muse is finally center stage after being romantic lead in Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook and dipping into a character role (and her best performance) in American Hustle, and the film is also Russell’s first with a singular protagonist – though without sacrificing his fascination with ensembles just left of center. As the film becomes more interested in its heroine’s emergence and success rather the familiar world she inhabits, it finds its footing, but looses some of its teeth.
Less ambitious than Hustle or the existential I Heart Huckabees and more accessible than even the lighthearted Playbook, here you have both the most enervated of Russell’s freestyle rhythms and his most unfocused. Somehow, the sum of its parts works, and not just because of Lawrence working in peak form. Each of the film’s three acts feel divided by massive tonal shifts as plot devices get discarded, as if Russell is unsure of an angle to approach his subject and her family or is stuck after keeping too many balls in there. Again, somehow Joy feels messily complete.
Beginning in medias res with whole swaths of family history alluded to without specifics, Lawrence’s Joy (based mostly on Joy Mangano, though her full name goes without mention) becomes an entrepreneur almost by accident after a life unfulfilled to the confidence of her grandmother matriarch’s (Diane Ladd, given shockingly little to do considering) assertion of her become a strong, successful woman. Naturally, the family dynamic is where Russell excels, creating a believably unified yet fractured system of extended family and generational differences. The textured range of daughters, mothers, step-relatives, and friends rings vividly true – with Russell clearly invigorated to make a film so about women.
Ladd aside, the cast is all given small moments of interest. Elizabeth Rohm as Joy’s less wordly and bitter step-sister Peggy is the most fully rounded, suggesting a life outside the frame worthy of her own film. Robert DeNiro and Virginia Madsen as Joy’s parents are more broadly drawn as naysayer and eccentric – role surprising smaller than the first act promises, but still fleshed out. Also minutely present is Russell favorite Bradley Cooper, charming but otherwise unessential as the QVC exectuive first sparking to Joy’s Miracle Mop (also unnamed, unless you blink and miss the caption on the television). Most intriguing and refined is Isabella Rossellini as DeNiro’s new wife. Sharply business-oriented and shallow, it’s a perfect fit for Rossellini’s icy trademark delivery and underrated character actress abilities – here’s hoping she becomes the next David O. Russell regular.
While the under-utilized supporting players stay on the fringes, Jennifer Lawrence finally returns to non-Katniss lead for the first time since Winter’s Bone to delightful results. It’s a relief to see her back in a role that uses the full range of her capacities, with more subtlety than we’ve seen from her since that first Oscar-nominated performance. Plenty have complained about the age difference Russell has consistently cast the actress within, but here her ease of her craft makes that much less pronounced – never has she been this confident or poised. As Joy’s hard knocks hit harder and her resolve grows more stubbornly motivated, Lawrence shows why she’s earned the current status of superstar she has with a performance of intelligent modulation that promises even greater heights to come in her career.