As nice as it is to see a film production giving work to a lot of people in a particular technical field, the presence of four named editors in a film’s credits presents a fairly ominous sight. Given the numerous editing credits, it’s no surprise that the weakest element of David O. Russell’s latest film, Joy, can be found in its structure. What’s ultimately a straightforward, rise-and-fall drama is shunted through all sorts of disparate tones, tangents and pacing styles. To name one, a recurring motif with a fake soap opera that opens the film unceremoniously drops after maybe 40 minutes. Some stretches give a sensory and emotional rush akin to what Russell’s often manic camera clearly wants to convey, but too many, particularly early on, stagger and occasionally flounder; you’re on a high one moment, and then the air feels sucked out of the room not long after.
The all-over-the-place nature of Russell’s last couple of films has been a particularly polarising style for many, especially when it comes to the director’s previous feature, American Hustle. Joy certainly maintains Russell’s Hustle penchant for a few glaringly sloppy pop song choices (nothing near as baffling as the way “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is used in Hustle), but Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” kicking in as Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy swiftly departs a conversation with bickering family members to go let off some steam at a gun range next door presents one of the more groan-worthy music cues of recent memory.
In comparing the new film with American Hustle and The Fighter, Russell’s frenetic style succeeds in the previous two through a shifting focus that feels at bit more at home in the context of a sprawling ensemble piece. While Joy is peppered with an array of talented actors in supporting roles (Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen), their characters are largely one-note (though not to say poorly performed) and the focus rarely falls on them. Joy is instead all about Joy. The film cumulatively works as a whole (despite having so many dead air scenes and dropped plot points), because when the streamlined focus falls on the lead character (kudos to whichever editor is responsible) rather than making room for a side player quip, Joy develops real warmth and vibrancy. Not long 25, Lawrence may arguably be too young for this part (the real-life Joy Mangano, whose life the film is loosely based on, was in her mid-thirties when her Miracle Mop invention took off), but, as demonstrated in first Russell collaboration Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has a real knack for conveying lived experiences beyond her years; it’s all in the eyes and flourishes of resent and heartbreak in her voice.
When Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera actually calms down, a much more electric energy emerges from the performers through a more still environment; by no means static, but a more calm vessel for the characters’ emotions to be articulated. The centrepiece example of this is a collection of lengthy two-handers with Bradley Cooper’s QVC honcho. Free of family members or “enemies of commerce” serving as loud scene-dressing, Russell, Lawrence and Cooper serve up the film’s one character pairing that truly enthrals, thanks in part to their chemistry but also thanks to a captivating thematic concern with selling dreams. Cooper’s exec, having worked for FOX, compares his work to great old Hollywood producers, who sold visions both big and small to the world, but without cynicism; without forgetting the human touch that lets people see themselves in what’s on screen, suggesting attainability. A little bit of that magic spread somewhere on Joy’s set, since its maestros successfully manage to sell you on a film that’s ostensibly about the creation of a cleaning product.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.