In the last half a dozen or so years, David O Russell has specialised in a very specific kind of prestige movie. They’re dark but funny, dramatic but silly, gritty but quirky. It’s worked well for him, with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle all cleaning up at the box office and when it comes to award nominations. It seems like it’s a formula he’s sticking with, because he’s back with another movie that ticks all of those boxes with Joy.
It’s the 80s and Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is living a pretty shit life. Her house is overrun by her soap opera addicted, shut in mother (Virginia Madsen as Terry), her deadbeat ex husband (Edgar Ramierez as Tony), her grandmother (Diane Ladd as Mimi) and her two young children. Things get even more stressful when her father (Robert De Niro as Rudy) returns to live in the basement after being kicked out by his second wife.
With bills due and her latest dead end job coming to an end, Joy is desperate to keep her house and the utilities that run it. Always a hard worker and conscientious, she invents a self wringing mop. She also convinces her father’s new girlfriend (Isabella Rosollini as Trudy) to invest the $50,000 needed to manufacture the first batch. When initial sales indicate that this invention may not be so great after all, an old friend of Tony’s leads to a meeting with Neil (Bradley Cooper), head of the then new QVC home shopping network.
I was a little sceptical going into Joy. I’ve enjoyed every movie David O Russell ever made (although I haven’t seen the one finished without him and released without his consent last year). But after American Hustle, I felt like his ticks and traits had reached their limit. But Russell’s combination of dark but funny, dramatic but silly, gritty but quirky is the only way that a true story like this could warrant the big screen treatment.
I was also a little sceptical about Russell teaming up for the third time in a row with Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro. But I think I was just looking for something to dislike, because the only thing more watchable than Lawrence and Cooper doing their individual charming things, is when they get to be charming together. And between this and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell is responsible for the two best De Niro performances in well over a decade.
Joy has been included a lot in the conversations about Oscar nominations. It was getting Academy Awards buzz before a single critic had even seen it. I don’t think it’s that kind of movie though. While it’s an interesting story, told well via strong performances and confident direction, it feels more like a pleasant two hour distraction, a piece of uplifting entertainment. But nothing more than that. And there’s nothing wrong with being nothing more than that.