David O Russell is a master window dresser, a director well-versed in illusions of grandeur in both the narratives he pens and the films he makes of them. They’re imbued with the superficial that offer in the moment pleasures – nostalgia-rich soundtracks that are the freewheeling sounds of a long lost way of life when blared through a good sound system, sure to make any audience member sing; narrative and tonal shifts that occur as fast as the the analogy-laden dialogue, where everyone is playing some kind of psychological game for personal gain. The whole affair gives off the aura of a fabulous game of childish make-believe, centered around indeed illusions of the glamour of life instead of the banal reality. It certainly makes the heart pound and the head rush, giving full rise to the idea that film narratives are just an elaborate con-job of emotional manipulation.
But despite how thrilling it feels at the time, it’s hard to create something that feels genuine and well-rounded in such a world of facades. When exiting the cinema after viewing one of Russell’s films, one feels overwhelmed, convinced they’ve witnessed the work of a master, one that has delivered a fun yet thoughtful dissection of the American Dream, a filmmaker who has rediscovered the qualities that makes film buffs world over misty-eyed about the New Hollywood of the 1970s. But after a moment of consideration, Russell’s films turn out to be just as much of a con-job as is depicted one way or another in them. The energy that existed in the cinema, the supposed smarts of what one witnessed quickly dissolves, leaving something that is no more thoughtful or inventive than your run-of-the-mill studio film, far from the unique and boundary-pushing work that Russell is believed to be making.
Fun, yet thoughtful dissection of the American Dream is a statement that could be applied to any of Russell’s current output. Exhibiting a penchant for blue-collar characters caught up in fantasies of grandeur that entirely based on ideas of the American Dream that are much above their pay grade or intelligence level , he makes working class fairytales of hardship and familial dysfunction where low life characters break out of their hard realities through some kind of fantasy. In fact, their hard realities are instigated by (and for this reason, impossible to escape from) their families. In The Fighter, Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) is a boxer with a crime and drug addiction-addled family who dreams of going pro. In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat (Bradley Cooper) is trying to get his life back on track after a stint in a mental institution, only to be undermined by his neurotic family. In American Hustle, Irving, Richie, and Sydney yearn to escape their lives of games of deception, but continue to be drawn to the excitement of the con.
Because O. Russell is someone who has built the latest chapter of his career on the simple repackaging of a narrative, it should come as no surprise that Joy is much the same as we’ve seen before. It opens in the tail end of the 80s, but Cream’s 1966 track I Feel Free blares over the soundtrack, suggesting a time not quite caught up to the neon flares of twenty years later. Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), like the protagonists in Russell’s previous films, is trapped in a rut of a life – working as a clerk for an airline, her ramshackle family includes her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who still lives in her basement, her obnoxious father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), and her agoraphobic mother Terri (Virginia Madsen). Early scenes, where Joy tries to manage the dependent madness of everyone around her, are frequented by Russell’s hallmarks of shouted dialogue and tonal changes from the hilarious to the sad, hammering home Joy’s inability to move from her current situation with constant cries of “can’t you fix it?” from her stagnant family members.
It’s in this state of flux, moving from one dysfunctional situation to another in a breakneck and disjointed manner, that populates the first hour of the film. Russell struggles to create any form of narrative clarity or development, because like the characters, the film feels so detached from any sense of aim, even failing to dress up the film as something much more energetic and entertaining despite its flaws.
It’s at the end of the first hour, when Joy is watching one of the videotaped soap opera episodes her mother spends day after day watching (the shiny, well-dressed and passionately spoken upper class are an illusion of the American Dream, of course) that the film finds some sense of an aim. As the narration continues to tell us, Joy once was imaginative and invented things, but the demands of her family ended that. That is, until she rediscovers it. In true Russell style, that moment, which is one of misfortune and pain played as a fairytale, Joy comes upon an idea – a self-wringing mop (known now as the Miracle Mop).
The turning point and the aftermath, where Joy manufactures her idea with much unwanted interjection from her family who she is ultimately indebted to (the venture is financed by Rudy’s girlfriend Trudy, an Italian heiress played by Isabella Rossellini), can’t help but feel anticlimactic for the film. A mop doesn’t feel like an adequate return for enduring two hours of convoluted narrative, punctuated by oddly softer but again tonally out of place moments of fairytale-esque escape. These moments, however, are somewhat buoyed by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. Known for playing much older characters in Russell’s previous films to varying success (the large age gap is a big detriment), Lawrence feels closer to reality than normal here. As she looks to the sky, somewhat liberated from her family but also accepting of their imposing presence, there is a sense of growth, of genesis of Joy from beginning to end. It feels less like an act than her previous performances under Russell’s direction, which frequently feel more like games of dress-up than lived-in performances, have felt. It feels genuine. That is, until Russell makes fake snow rain onto her face. Oh well. One can never escape the illusion.