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.