Friday, January 1, 2016

Jennifer Lawrence embodies JOY

     Joy, directed by David O. Russell and co-written with Annie Mumolo, tells of Joy Mangano and her invention of the Miracle Mop.  It may sound arcane, but Russell continues in his neo-Preston Sturges mode that began with the uproarious Flirting with Disaster (1996), arguably the funniest movie of the mid-‘90s, and was reignited in his works starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (The Silver Linings Playbook of 2011 and American Hustle in 2013).  Russell has presented the American family as culturally and ethnically variegated and as a unit that both supports and hinders its individual members.  Some might term them as dysfunctional, but that over-used term no longer possesses meaning or validity 80% of the time it’s used.  Instead, it reflects the experiences of many Americans I know.  Russell’s ace in the hole is Jennifer Lawrence; the movie wouldn’t be possible without her because she’s become his muse.

     Though the plot marries a Cinderella tale with an entrepreneurial success docudrama, the story covers four decades in the life of a noted American and her family.  It takes its time.  In fact, Kaylee and Neil thought it was slow.  The TV promos make it look faster and funnier than the actual deeper and darker movie that it is.  It feels like a Holiday movie because of a couple of narrative elements that Russell employs:  narration, long flashbacks, and visual imagery of small-town America in winter.

Lawrence and Cooper Reunite
     Russell tries some directorial touches that tonally work against the screwball comedy audiences may have expected.  The Cinderella motif goes broad with a fairy godmother (Joy’s grandmother), two ugly stepsisters (her mother and older half-sister), her trickster figure of a father, and an evil witch (her dad’s girlfriend).  There’s also Prince Charming, split into the two characters of her ex-husband and a QVC executive, who becomes a business colleague, and a faithful girlhood friend.  Prince Charming does not instigate a romantic relationship and that could decrease the movie’s box office potential.  However, in the strictest sense, this is a Romance because it is about a quest that results in finding one’s self through a search for a specific object.  The stand-in for the Holy Grail, however, is about the successful promotion, production, and patent copyright of a kitchen mop – and yes, it’s in that order.

The Family Matriarchs
     At one point, Joy’s grandmother wishes that Joy would be a matriarch and she ends up presented that way in the final couple of minutes where she looks and behaves like Deborah Kerr in A Woman of Substance (1985).  However, a fake soap opera starring Laura Wright, Susan Lucci, and Donna Mills keeps showing up on Joy’s mother’s TV and in Joy’s dreams with the décor, hair, and costuming changing over the years.  A scene between Joy and her best friend at a kitchen table, drinking coffee and discussing personal issues, looks like something out of Secret Storm or Ryan’s Hope in the ‘70s.  Wright, Lucci, and Mills play tongue in cheek, parodying the genre, but Lawrence and Dascha Polanco perform naturalistically and the disparity doesn’t work.  Is Joy’s life a soap opera?  Isn’t anyone’s over time?  In the final scene, Joy seems superior with a colleague, who first promoted her mop and the interaction leaves a sour note.  Lawrence is styled like a soap opera doyenne, rather than a matriarch, and comes across as stiff and as if she’s playing at being middle-aged.  Wasn’t Joy fighting against a traditional, classist approach to business in her go for broke manner?  Has a feminist entrepreneur become a quasi-patriarchal administrator-tycoon?  Mr. Russell, please don’t turn this generation’s Barbara Stanwyck into Dina Merrill.

Joy Inventing the Miracle Mop
      Otherwise, Lawrence carries the movie by moving believably from a teenager to thirty-four, nailing the accent, and by providing a mixture of optimism, moxie, and sheer grit that enlivens every scene.  Some of the best sequences include Joy moving her Dad back into the basement, selling her mop for the first time on TV, and a wonderful gunfight without guns in a historic boutique hotel in Texas.  I wish the movie had ended right after that scene.  We got that she found her mojo and wouldn’t look back – we didn’t need to have it underlined with a coda that felt like a montage out of a second-rate Broadway musical.  

The Ensemble Cast
     The rest of the acting ensemble is crackerjack from pros like Robert DeNiro, Diane Ladd – she matches up perfectly as Lawrence’s Grandmother, Virginia Madsen as the frightened, agoraphobic mother obsessed with the soaps, and Isabella Rossellini as a misguided, weaker than she appears venture capitalist.  Edgar Ramirez (2011’s Carlos) does charm as Joy’s ex-husband, who is actually looking out for her.  The bilingual aspects of the story indirectly hit a bull’s eye at the xenophobia in the current presidential election warm-ups.  Russell, thankfully, doesn’t include subtitles so any non-Spanish speaking audience members need to pick up the context visually.  Bradley Cooper plays an inverse character arc to Lawrence’s.  He’s on top when she first meets him, but he gets across an air of nervous frustration through his eyes and hair texture in his final scene with her.  Elisabeth Röhm, another Russell stalwart, is a hoot as Joy’s lively, malevolent half-sister.  I wish I knew the name of the little girl playing Joy’s daughter because she doesn’t pull any cutesy or precocious move.  The bond between her and Lawrence is immediate and strong.  The climax is when Joyo melts down and seems as if she’ll give up and her daughter’s face registers that more betrayal more acutely than the others.

     The production design captures the look of the mid ‘70s to the early ‘90s without having to resort to titles.  Like the rest of the movie, it’s achieved in an understated manner.  There wasn’t one car out of period or interior setting that didn’t reflect the times and this was underscored by the hit tunes that actually speak of what’s happening in the scenes

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