Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Joy": The Failings of David O. Russell

Now In Theaters
Oscar Nomination: Jennifer Lawrence - Best Lead Actress

It’s no secret that I don’t really like David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle).  Though I don’t think his films are ever offensive or outright terrible, his scatterbrained methodology to filmmaking has never sat well with me, particularly his inability to keep focused on a central narrative long enough to make any of his characters’ arcs feel coherent.  And yet, critics seem to love him for reasons that I have yet to fathom… that is, they loved him until Joy.  This is the first film in Russell’s filmography to receive a truly middling response, and yet somehow still managed to snag Jennifer Lawrence a Best Actress nomination from the Academy.  So I figured I had to go see how exactly this came to pass.

Very loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, Joy follows the eponymous character (Lawrence) through her exploits as the single woman supporting her family, both her parents and her children.  That is, until the film decides that her relationship with her family isn’t what’s important anymore and decides that Joy’s penchant for creation and invention needs to elevate her above her family as she invents a self-wringing mop that she struggles tooth and nail to manufacture and sell.  Then the film shifts once more into being an analysis of the rise of the QVC cable shopping network and Joy’s place within its growing success.  In short, the film’s plot it all over the map, and structurally the film reflects that chaos.

Normally Russell’s films tend to meander in the middle before finally finding its way back to the central narrative in the minutes before the credits roll, but here he can’t seem to find any sort of narrative throughline in the film.  Joy’s narrative arc starts, stops, changes course, or completely drops so many times throughout the film that any sense of coherent pacing flies right out the window.  Lawrence is a committed enough acting talent to make the character work from scene to scene, but we never get much of a glimpse into who Joy is as a character or how she changes throughout the story because the writing can’t seem to decide what story it wants to tell.

I think this is primarily because Russell is stepping out of his comfort zone with Joy, attempting to focus on a single character and pushing the larger eccentric cast into the background.  Russell has never excelled at writing deep characters, but usually he does a good enough job casting very talented actors that can carry the load of the poor writing.  However, here we see the merely two-dimensional Joy having to interact with a one-dimensional cast that, while largely portrayed by Russell regulars, have even less to work with than Lawrence.  The dialogue is often stilted and awkward in ways that would be more forgivable if the characters were allowed chemistry, but in a story that is ostensibly a character study there isn’t much room to do that, at least not as Russell directs it.

Lawrence’s Oscar nod is pretty evident as just that: a nod.  She is a very talented actress who is the main reason that Joy is even watchable, and this nomination is more of an acknowledgment of that talent rather than her performance in this particular role.  David O. Russell will always deserve credit for giving Lawrence the platform to prove her talents, but it seems that his translation of scattershot plot details into the semblance of a coherent film is losing sway with critics and the Academy.  And quite frankly, I think it’s about damn time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the information...Russell has collaborated with actors Bradley Cooper, Robert Deniro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Mark Wahlberg, on three films each, and with Christian Bale and Amy Adams, on two films each.
    david o russell