David O. Russell's career can be divided right down the middle at this point between the movies he made before the horrible nail-related head injury and the movies he made after it.
Now, I'm not implying he had a head injury, of course. I'm referring to the film that was eventually released as “Accidental Love,” which finally snuck onto Blu-ray this year. It's a terrible movie by any metric, and one of the saddest things about it is watching just how flat every attempt at humor falls in it. I am an unrepentant fan of “I Heart Huckabees,” the last of the “old” Russell films, but it felt even at the time like he had followed that particular sensibility as far as he possibly could. It was six years until he roared back to life, suddenly transformed into the most reliable “I will get you nominated for an acting Academy Award” director that we have working right now. And of all the actors he's worked with since this reinvention, none have shone quite so brightly as Jennifer Lawrence.
One of the strangest things about Russell's collaboration with Lawrence is that he doesn't seem to see any particular age when he casts her. That's fun and interesting, but it's also genuinely odd considering she's 25. She's very good at what she does, but she's young, and she's not automatically right for every role. While she does robust, heartfelt work in the lead in his new film “Joy,” this is the most miscast she's been in a while, and it's such a strangely imagined film in the first place that it never really gets its bearings.
That's not to say it's an unpleasant ride. Working from a script by Annie Mumolo, Russell rebuilt the story into something more fractured, more intentionally kaleidoscopic, which is just part of his approach these days. It's like what he did to “American Hustle,” which is a relatively straightforward story about a political sting operation. Not the way Russell told it, of course, and that's sort of the point of what he does. He throws everything he has at the canvass and from that chaos, he hopes for transcendence. Sometimes it works. This time, not so much.
Based on the true story of Joy Mangano, this hits all the basic biographical points. As in real life, the movie Joy invents a flea collar at a young age, only to watch Hartz put the same collar on the market a few years later. While struggling to hold her family together financially, she developed the Miracle Mop and then managed to get the mop marketed on the then-new QVC, finally finding success and starting her larger business career. The thing that is most compelling about it is that the film tells a resolutely female American success story, and that's something that is still novel. By now, there's a shape to the “American rise and fall” story, and it doesn't matter if it's the most legitimate business in the world or a criminal empire, there's something similar about the form. But the world that Joy Mangano had to navigate is a very different one for so many reasons, and the first of those is, no question about it, because she was a woman.
Here's where I'd love to compare the drafts by Mumolo, who was the one who set the project up in the first place, and Russell once he came on and was sure he was directing. The film has a bit of a “aren't women FABULOUS?!” tone to it, and while I agree wholeheartedly, it feels like it's a little disingenuous on Russell's part. It's a little too “gee whiz” at times, too breathless about how marvelous Joy is, 25/8/366. Lawrence broke through as someone carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and it's still her best trick as an actress. She's like this great big empathy battery, all charged and crackling with energy, and Russell stacks the deck against her with zeal. The more the world dumps on her, the more we're supposed to love her, and the supporting cast helps. Everyone does what they're supposed to do around Joy, whether it's her shitheel dad (Robert De Niro) or her damaged and fragile mom (Virginia Madsen) or her adoring perpetual cheerleader of a grandmother, played at her most vulnerable by Diane Ladd. She's got an ex-husband who never quite went away (Edgar Ramirez) and a half-sister who resents the hell out of her (Elizabeth Rohm), and most important of all, she's got her children. She is a fierce mother lion when she needs to be, and she needs to be pretty much every single moment of every day.
There are plenty of moments in the film that I liked, and I think the cast brings a pretty irresistible energy to things. But it's a shambles as a movie, and like many of these films, there's a crescendo that happens at a certain point that is the natural end of the film, with a final act that feels deflated and sort of jammed on. It tells the story it needs to tell, but it feels perfunctory. And the supporting cast grows more cartoonish as they age, with Isabella Rossellini and Robert De Niro the worst offenders. Ramirez is a shiny lollipop of an ex-husband, the best case scenario in human form, and he plays it as well as he can. Diane Ladd's got the same problem to some degree, playing such an idealized character that there's no nuance. She's just pure love, which is fine, but it's not terribly interesting. My favorite supporting work is by Dascha Poalnco, who has a prominent role on “Orange Is The New Black.” She plays Joy's best friend, and their friendship is one of the most delicately etched relationships in the film. There's a lot of busy detail to the film, and it yields some pleasant diversions, like a burgeoning relationship between her mother and a plumber who shows up to fix a hole in the floor. It's charming, but it's not enough to support the sprawl of the narrative. Running a hair over two hours, it's all a little ephemeral. There's something about it that just doesn't feel glued together, and it's no one's fault in particular. Linus Sandgren's photography is emotionally driven rather than strictly realistic, and that's lately effective. There are four different editors credited on the film, and it feels like it. While individual sequences have a successful rhythm, the film as a whole lurches and starts and stops, and by the time it wound up, I was sort of worn out by it.
The truth is that we're still in the early days of this thing between Russell and Lawrence. She's 25. That's so young, and he's really just been working at this level for the last few movies. His creative energy right now is through the roof, and he's going to keep finding new things to throw at her, and with people these talented, that's bound to result in fireworks. And, yeah… the occasional misfire as well.
“Joy” arrives in theaters Christmas Day.