It’s Joy Mangano’s wedding day, and she’s a vision in white. The indomitable inventor has just tied the knot to ruggedly sexy singer Tony and now sits at the head of a banquet table during the post-ceremony reception beside her newly betrothed and their families. That includes Rudy, Joy’s soulless bastard of a father, who takes the opportunity to make a toast hurling increasingly venomous insults at Joy’s mother until it culminates in a shrugging estimation that Joy and Tony stand about a 50/50 chance at staying together. As he continues to rail on, people start hollering, champagne spills, Joy screams with tears. Another pristine memory for the Mangano Family Photo Book.
What Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) can’t possibly realize is that her father (Robert De Niro) is not wrong, and his tirade of toxic invective will be good for her in the long run. She and Tony (Edgar Ramirez) work much more positively as close platonic companions than partners in marriage, and their eventual divorce puts them on better terms than they had ever enjoyed as husband and wife. The unending stream of casual emotional abuse Joy must tolerate from her father vulcanizes her, and in time, surviving it provides her with the strength she needs to survive in the cutthroat world of industry.
David O. Russell’s last three films all revolve around self-destructive, self-sustaining family units like this one. Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy share more than onscreen appearances from Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro; they revolve around groups of people who more often than not hate one another, but are forcibly joined by a common objective and ultimately spur each other to success. In the films of David O. Russell, you can’t live with family, but you can’t live without ’em, either.
Though these films individually assume the guise of an offbeat rom-com, a Scorsesean caper, and a feel-good feminist biopic, they all essentially tell the same story. In each, an overarching goal — winning money by betting on a dance tournament, catching corrupt politicians accepting bribes, launching an independent company around an original idea — joins a collection of volatile personalities together and allows them to collide, threatening to break apart if it doesn’t power the larger enterprise to success. Even with the odds stacked against these various schemes, the greatest threat to their efficacy is tension from within.
Silver Linings Playbook and Joy tend to form a pair, with American Hustle as the odd bird. The prior two films feature literal families, while the latter assembles a figurative family of ethically murky law enforcers. De Niro portrays nearly identical characters in Playbook and Joy — cantankerous patriarchs unable to keep their most antagonistic inklings to themselves. As the degenerate gambler Pat Solitano and Joy’s irascible father Rudy Mangano, De Niro does intentionally and recreationally hurtful things. The catastrophic wedding toast is certainly the flashiest offense, but the most brutal moment of Joy comes when Jennifer Lawrence’s steely entrepreneur encounters a major setback and her pops claps her on the shoulder and tells her it was his fault for making her believe in herself in the first place. It is a profoundly damaging gesture, carefully designed to erode her self-esteem. Perversely enough, it’s Joy’s recognition of how dismal her situation with her family is — specifically her father — that compels her to scrape the tatters of her life together and make something of herself. Life with a ruthless family makes tough cookies of us all.
The consumptive desire to get out of one’s own shitty life also animates Bradley Cooper’s harebrained plot to lure politicians into a sting operation in American Hustle. As FBI agent Richie DiMaso, he obsesses over the feeling of control, hoovering coke and cursing out subordinates just to feel on top of his given situation. This is due in no small part to his understanding of just how screwed up his operation truly is, as it demands Richie wrangle a pair of slippery con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) and rub elbows with other, even less savory types. He and Bale’s colorful con man Irving constantly jockey for domination over the operation, over Adams’ sexpot swindler Sydney, and over one another. (De Niro’s in the mix, too, but only in a cameo as an aging crime boss.)
This informal trilogy also shares an uncommonly bittersweet tone at the finish, wrapping things up with a resolution that should seem satisfying, but belies even greater dysfunction. Silver Linings Playbook assumes the pose of having a sense of humor about its own custom-made imperfections by setting the bar for victory in the climactic dance contest at ‘relative mediocrity’ instead of ‘winning.’ (Lawrence and Cooper need only a five out of 10 to make good on the bet the family has placed.) But the ending’s closure is compromised in deeper ways than this. Silver Linings ends by sending a woman in a mentally precarious state into the most roaringly dysfunctional family in Philadelphia, due mostly to a confluence of lies, deception, and ballroom dance. American Hustle binds the spectacularly mismatched Irving and Sydney in marriage, and Joy never makes any attempt to apologize or spackle over the many transgressions of Joy’s relatives. These films end with people who are empirically bad for one another strengthening their ties and committing even more fully to a disastrous relationship, whether that’s romantic or familial. Russell stages happy endings that sour into sad ones after the curtain is drawn.
Joy clearly presents itself as one of those ambitious works of entertainment with statements to make about What It Means To Be American, and indeed, it assembles a striking depiction of the American spirit, but not in the way Russell might think. He clearly demarcates Joy Mangano as a truly American soul, able to pull herself up by her bootstraps and make a magnificent sales empire for herself with nothing but an industrious drive and a good idea. Her self-made success should epitomize the American dream, but it’s what remains once she’s achieved that success that truly brands her as American to her core. After Joy has peddled her mops and made her fortune, she’s left to contend with the sins of her father and the whirling torrent of havoc that is her personal life. The unspoken lesson of Joy is that brass rings we spend our life chasing — professional success, fame — can’t automatically repair the deeper foundational problems that had a hand in getting us there. In Russell’s trilogy of dysfunctional nightmare families, his characters can never truly escape the chaos from which they were formed. They can only harness it as the endlessly renewable resource that it is and use it to power their ambition.