Saturday, 26 December 2015

Joy (2015) - Movie Review

David O. Russell might be one of the most emotionally intuitive filmmakers working today, if not ever. Every film he’s been attached to explores some inner working of the human psyche to (usually) great effect: Sex (Spanking The Monkey), personal identity (Flirting With Disaster), greed (Three Kings), comfort through the metaphysical (I Heart Huckabees), pride (The Fighter), depression (Silver Linings Playbook), deception (American Hustle) and… okay, I haven’t quite figured out where Accidental Love fits into this overall picture.
Nevertheless, the man is a phenomenally good writer and director, especially in recent years. After the largely confusing mess of Huckabees, which people seemed to love or hate for the same reason (that it made no sense), O. Russell went through a definite change in his tactics. His slapstick style of direction became more introspective, resulting in a trio of films that were not only good but were legitimately some of the best films of their respective years, if not the entire decade. So, given how much I clearly adore the man’s work, I look forward to today’s subject hoping that Accidental Love wasn’t some kind of ill omen. Even for filmmakers I like, I can’t help being cynical.

The plot: Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced mother of two who lives with her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), father Rudy (Robert De Niro), sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) and ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Wanting to get a better grip on her life, she enlists her family, along with Rudy’s girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), to help her realize a new type of mop that she has invented and sell it. As she creates a business connection with QVC executive Neil (Bradley Cooper), it seems that the world is going to throw everything it can in her way.

Time to go over the traditional O. Russell ensemble cast. Lawrence is great as always as the strong and determined lead, Cooper is a little below par but still shows a lot of energy when the calls start coming in, and De Niro probably gets the best lines in the film which he delivers admirably. Beyond that, Virginia Madsen is good as the soap-opera addicted mother, Édgar Ramírez redeems himself a bit for Deliver Us From Evil and gets to show off his decent pipes as well, Isabella Rossellini has managed to stop detailing the sex lives of animals (no, that’s not a joke) long enough to give an alright turn as the almost predatory Trudy and Elisabeth Röhm plays the terminally jealous bitch Peggy on exactly that note. Honestly, the only real down point in the cast is Aundrea and Gia Gadsby as Joy’s daughter Christie; knowing how good O. Russell is at getting performances out of his actors, I expected better.

If we’re continuing the idea of psychological analysis in O. Russell’s previous work, then this film’s core theme would be optimism. From her family to her friends to her investors, Joy repeatedly gets shat on by life; she proves that Murphy’s Law not only exists, but that it has numerous agents at its disposal. The film does give a good sense of just how many hurdles Joy has to clear in order to redeem herself, and there’s definite catharsis to be felt when she starts doing well. It can feel at times like a soap opera with how intent some of Joy’s family are to stab her in the back, though. However, it seems that O. Russell planned ahead for this one, as one of the running gags involves Joy’s mother comparing their lives to the soap opera she watches all day. Bonus points for populating the in-universe soap opera with legends of the format like Susan Lucci, Maurice Benard, Laura Wright and even Donna Mills. That tactic might not be bulletproof, but it at least shows a reasonable bit of self-awareness about how melodramatic the events of the film are.

More than anything, O. Russell’s strength is his talent for character: His writing provides excellent framework for living, breathing people to inhabit the story and his aptitude for directing actors (which may be more than a little problematic, given the arguments he’s gotten in on-set) allows those people to realised on-screen. Well, knowing how good he can be with that, particularly with his last two releases, this is a serious letdown. Joy is pretty much the only solid character in the entire film, who is determined and resilient and everything else we’ve come to expect from a J. Law role. Everyone else, save for her ex-husband Tony, exists solely as emotional roadblocks that Joy has to overcome. Rudy and Neil get on-off moments where they are genuinely supportive, but even they have their moments of standing in her way for the usual strawman sexist reasons. They don’t really come across that much as people, let alone people we should empathise with in any way.

What makes this fall even harder is how, at times, they are absolutely right. Not completely, and I stand by how even for the 90’s their housewife comments are a bit much, but Joy as depicted in this film isn’t nearly as prepared to run a business as the film keeps insisting that she is. In real life, the Miracle Mop sold okay numbers until Joy went with the ‘face of the company’ approach. In this film, given how disastrous first impressions can be for a product, how events are shown make it look like she wouldn’t sell a single unit prior to her going front and centre. Hell, it’s through a semi-makes-it-easy moment that everything ends up working out in the end in the first place.

The cinematography is seriously annoying in this film. Linus Sandgren has done good work before with American Hustle and, as much as I didn’t like the film as a whole, The Hundred-Foot Journey, but this has some real visual problems. For one thing, the camera work will occasionally contradict the script in frankly bizarre ways. Regardless of what the dialogue indicates on its own, there is an inordinate amount of actors talking out-of-frame in a way that does not fit in the slightest with what’s happening on-screen. There’s also this weird effect that occurs with the focus that makes everything look like they’re happening on a green screen, even when they’re sitting at the dining room table. As a result, a lot of the zoom-ins and outs look disjointed and can really bring you out of the film with little effort.

All in all, while I have been largely bitching about this film and it definitely has its flaws, this film is still pretty good. Most of the film involves connecting with the main character as she fights to get through every bad scenario that’s given to her, and that mostly succeeds based solely on the strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. The rest of the acting is good, caricature characterisation notwithstanding, the music selection is on par with O. Russell’s oeuvre, and while the camera work could definitely get distracting at times, the overall package is at least worth a watch.

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