The backlash against Joy — to speak kindly of its critical reception — reflects less on the quality of David O. Russell’s soulful, shimmering film than it does the quickened, pre-fab, post-Twitter climate of snarky consensus film criticism, which, by its very nature, is rarely forgiving of works anomalous with the marketplace. Qualities like Fincher-esque formal precision, smarmy superhero wit, effects-laden exploits of science and logic that are stiffened by a dearth of verve and imagination reign supreme; a messy fuzz of creative energy like Joy is out of joint with the mainstream. It dovetails the ersatz charm of old-fashioned and workmanlike Hollywood direction with talky, off-cuff, Altmanesque dynamism, the soap-operatics of daytime television, the histrionic melodrama of Douglas Sirk, and the working-class naturalism of the Brando/Dean School of filmed performance. Despite this shambolic cocktail of influence, Joy finds a match for its free-market capitalist ideology in a gold tinsel aesthetic defined by stringent use of colour and light. It champions the get-rich-quick mentality of a homemaker-turned-inventor in a synthetic world of fairytale sparkle but it retains her salt of the earth humility — it’s laissez-faire in cheap white-gold jewelry; an Old Hollywood knock off with more personality than the real thing. Surprise: the screwy peculiarity that has blighted Joy’s berth into critical consensus also happens to be the main source of its pleasure.
Perhaps having foreseen Joy’s bumpy inroads to success — a week into the cultural domination of Star Wars, no less — the studio’s publicity team minced together a trailer that obfuscates its pivotal but defiantly unsexy plot detail: the film is about the eponymous Joy Magnano (Jennifer Lawrence), inventor of the Miracle Mop. Yes, the hit QVC product of the early nineties. The world’s first self-wringing mop. The very same. While the marketing feels like a struggle to avoid that inherent mundanity, this doesn’t seem of any concern to Russell, who takes another bold step towards total aesthetic confection that began with American Hustle — a cheesy Scorsese pastiche — and lends due vitality to the representation of strong-willed, self-made women. Here he chews through scenes with speed and verve but without much thought to formal acuity. His impatient, splashy direction, replete with oft-lazy but effective pop music cues and the propulsive camera movements that have defined his films and the style of performance they enable, lends weight to a story of class struggle that rarely gets time under Hollywood’s spotlight, but it’s the weight of emotional instinct and not of thoughtful consideration.
If narrative and tonal consistency in lockstep with the trendy logic of the tentpole saga is what you seek, shop elsewhere. But consistency comes in many shades and colours, and what Joy does offer is pleasure through aesthetic consistency: Russell and his design team create a mise-en-scene doused in warm whites and golds offset by svelte navy and decorous, dark brown. Not a single frame that isn’t comprised primarily of these four colours will pass your eye — a feat of sustained decadence that a director like Wes Anderson would beat you over the eyes with, but which Russell infuses into his story here with an impressive degree of delicacy, so that it doesn’t feel fake and schematic.
As for the story: it’s less of an argument in tone than you might have heard. The film flits skillfully between Joy’s soap opera family life and her struggle against adversity in male-dominated business life (headed by Bradley Cooper as QVC boss). More often than not, these two areas intersect. Russell understands familial dysfunction; he gets that real families — loud, eccentric families — don’t sit over dinner speaking one line at a time, and that the average American has more exposure to tacky daytime television (QVC included) than they do prestige cinema. That’s why Joy’s whole family unit, ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) included, attends her private business meetings, because in working-class families all business is everyone’s business. It’s why the dialogue overlaps, and why Robert De Niro and Isabella Rossellini (as her father and his wealthy girlfriend) and Virginia Madsen (as her mother) chew at the scenery with comic relish, playing broadly on domestic types. It’s why Joy’s family seems to stunt her ambition and devour her success: they’re dysfunctional, and Joy is the hopeful cog who keeps turning in spite of them. Later, as Joy enters the business world, the film becomes utterly, unbelievably dreamlike, so much so that into the glaringly white QVC studio traipses Melissa Rivers in a cameo playing her own mother, the station’s most famous import. Joy has to sidestep the mendacity of this unreal world, and when she stumbles her family are as supportive as they are self-destructive. The film is chaotic because chaos is its substance and subject.
It’s distended with clunky exposition and chunky, unconvincing dream sequences, and it has a habit of overstating obvious beats. Jennifer Lawrence is about ten years too young for the role she plays, despite lending it her usual vivacity. But those defects and struggles manifest on-screen, in a film about a woman whose very own struggle to transcend the bonds of kinship and the domestic sphere echo in the film’s visible scuffle to transcend its beige narrative and it’s director’s childlike enthusiasm. The well-documented pre- and post-production issues — namely arduous rewrites of Annie Mumulo’s original script, as well as months on end in the cutting room, where four different editors were called in to make cogent Russell’s footage, resulting in a late-breaking fart of an Oscar campaign — are more apparent in the film’s seemingly pre-fabricated reception than they are in the main product, but they still lend it a scuffed charm. Joy’s creaky imperfection makes it something of a writhing delight — a strange outlier of a film whose obnoxious director has a butterfingers grip on its route to completion, but nonetheless an ugly duckling whose inconsistency is also its strange, beguiling power to enchant and surprise at any moment.
It also has tradition behind it: though her movie isn’t quite as good as theirs, Joy Magnano sits beside Mildred Pierce and Erin Brockovich in a lineage of tough, strident women who work and think and invent their way out of a tight spot. These characters resonate with mainstream viewers (who, it might be said, never had the same issues with Russell’s work that critics did, or in most cases, still do have). As Joy claws its way into the public consciousness, mirroring the underdog plight of its protagonist — it made $17 million on its domestic opening weekend, a career-high for Russell and proof of Lawrence’s powerful sway of the market share — perhaps some reflection on the way criticism functions in a world of instant feedback is in order.
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