Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: "Joy"

Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 124 minutes

If you find it odd that Joy opens with voice over from the main character's grandmother, don't expect coherence or justification to follow. David O. Russell's new free-wheeling, rambunctious dramedy is a puzzler from start to finish, and not for the best reasons. Adapting the real-life story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, Russell has applied the same energetic style that distinguished his last three films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle). Yet all of the roving, dynamic camera-work and snappy music choices in Joy's 2 hour runtime are enough to give a sense of life or necessity to this rags-to-riches tale. 

That's not to say that Mangano's tale is undeserving of dramatization, but Russell's execution here doesn't do it justice. The loud, dysfunctional family that surrounds Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) feels like a watered down version of what Russell presented in both Silver Linings and The Fighter. Yelling and bickering take the place of actual character growth, as if enough familial sparring will eventually turn into quirkiness. 

And it might have, were it not for the flatness that permeates just about every performance from the ensemble. Russell has assembled a typically excellent, charismatic cast, but none of them seem terribly invested in the material. The actors glide through the dialogue as if waiting for inspiration to strike, yet it never does. At worst, everyone in Joy sounds just a bit, well, bored. Whatever your opinion on Russell's recent films, they have enough energy flowing through them to make them at least passable entertainment. Joy, however, moves along mostly on autopilot, despite the lively, in-your-face photography. 

Perhaps the lack of energy comes down to the cluttered, discordant nature of the story. Joy brings in characters and subplots, but the wider the film's scope becomes, the weaker its impact. The closest the film comes to evoking joy (or any other emotion) arrives in the midsection, when Mangano starts to plug the Miracle Mop on QVC. Whether cramming in a cameo from Joan Rivers (played by her daughter, Melissa), or showing Mangano's eventual triumph on live TV, the QVC scenes introduce a sense of coherence and purpose. 

But the drive that highlights the rise of the Miracle Mop empire is stranded in a film that never quite figures out where it's going or leading up to. Diane Ladd's voice pops up sporadically with eyeroll-worthy narration, trying to turn Joy's story into a late 20th century entrepreneurial fairy tale. But much of what transpires just happens for the sake of filling up time over the course of a plodding two hours. The worst example is when Joy's shut in of a mother (Virginia Madsen) strikes up a relationship with a repairman. It adds nothing to the narrative, and there's nothing in the material that makes the messiness of the subplot feel acceptable. Like most of the story in Joy, it's just sort of there. One great shot in the film involves Mangano confidently strutting down a street. Unlike his subject, Russell is unable to match Joy's single-minded confidence or swagger. 

Grade: C-

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