David O. Russell has come to a standstill. Leaping onto the US Indie scene in the 90s with Spanking The Monkey and Flirting With Disaster a pair of equally screwball Gen-X examinations of modern American society, particularly through the lens of the family, full of neurotic characters and Oedipal anxiety, Russell appeared as one of the most fully formed directors of the age. Three Kings announced his arrival into the mainstream, although it is a somewhat half-baked attempt to deconstruct the first gulf war through a part-remake of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But it was when I ❤ Huckabees flopped hard with both critics and audiences and his bust up with Lily Tomlin became one of the first instances of backstage drama going viral, he found himself unable to get a project off the ground for years, with his Accidental Love ending up unfinished (although it was released in the US this year- minus his name). For a while it seemed as though Russell was due to languor in Director Jail along with Richard Kelly as the little director who couldn’t.
But then with The Fighter he had reinvented himself. Now here was a Russell who still enjoyed the same large, busy casts and traded in similar Freudian themes; but now there was a new slickness to his camerawork, the choreographed energy of a dancer dipping and weaving around his actors instead of capturing them as a documentarian, as if they were real. And this trend continued with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. These were all entertaining films, more entertaining than his early work in fact, but the entire tone and especially his endings, were now sickly sweet instead of perceptually challenging.
With his commercial stock raising while his critical adoration began to fall, the pressure was on somewhat for Joy, Russell’s latest epic and third collaboration with his muse, Jennifer Lawrence. She fully takes the reigns here for the first time as Joy Mangano, the working class girl who invents the miracle mop and founds an entire empire of invention, while trying to stop herself from being stabbed in the back by just about everyone in her path, particularly the difficult members of her family. Lawrence is, as ever, a captivating screen presence, but she is required to do little more than variously threaten people and cry. Since becoming one of the world’s biggest film stars we have actually only seen her in three franchises: Hunger Games, X-Men, and David O. Russell movies. Is this her being choosy with her projects or does it actually reveal a limited range or willingness to be adventurous with her roles. Is the J-Law brand best protected like this? The world seems to be in agreement to her talent, so why does she not take the kind of roles that could position her as the next Cate Blanchett or Jaoquin Phoenix? At least Lawrence looks alive though, unlike DeNiro who as Joy’s father is almost managing to reverse engineer the first half of his career with roles like this which make you question if he was ever a good actor. It is almost preferable to see him in Last Vegas or Dirty Grandpa, films where he clearly isn’t trying to do more than trade on his iconic image, than to put up with DeNiro wading through this material like a ham too lazy to avoid the slaughter.
Joy operates in similar territory to American Hustle, both in its period setting (we’re in the 80’s this time) and soft crime themes. And the obsession with family is there as ever, with Joy’s family positioned as variously dunderheaded and selfish. But this time the shtick feels flat, and somehow it feels as though one has wandered into a David O. Russell parody film. Joy is stuffed with underdeveloped characters, overbearing mothers, ruthless yet neurotic businessmen, castrated husbands: all mere sketches of the Russollian character at it’s best.
The problem is that for a film which is about a woman who uses her skills and ingenuity to overcome a system that is geared against her, Joy doesn’t really articulate anything about female empowerment. It feels good to see Joy winning these battles but with her leather jacket, the rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack and soupy voiceover, it all seems predetermined from a narrative standpoint which undermines the reality of her situation. Russell even uses the metaphor of Joy firing a gun into the air at the moment of her liberation. Yet unlike that iconic Mad Men moment, this signals the winning of a war, not simply a battle still to be fought.