There’s been much talk of late about the ethics behind the Oscars, particularly the suggestion that Black and Minority Actors get ignored by the Academy. But there’s another side to the ceremony that’s seldom debated; legacy. Are some directors, following a run of Oscar recognition (though not necessarily translating into statuettes), given too much freedom? Case study 187, and yours for just £12.95, is David O. Russell, director of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle; two successful movies featuring his favoured company of thesps, namely Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Now he’s returned with the same troupe, and one imagines a great deal of confidence, with Joy, but unlike his previous efforts, the pitch session for this one is a great deal harder to imagine.
O’ RUSSELL: Well, it’s about Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop – you know, the one that self-wrings. I have two myself.
EXEC: Really, David, you think there’s a movie in it?
O’RUSSELL: Sure, I mean, it’s a rags to riches story, and she had a bit of a difficult family. And yeah, the company that was making the parts tried to steal her design but she went there and sorted it out in an afternoon.
EXEC: Okay, and…?
O’RUSSELL: Well, that’s about it. I mean, it’s a funny story in some ways – she meets Joan Rivers, her Mom liked daytime soaps, and, er, I suppose it’s about America? Something like that? Oh, and I’ve got Jen, Brad and Rob interested.
EXEC: Well I don’t get it but okay, I’m sure you’ll make it work.
And thus Joy, a movie you feel would have struggled to get past the notes on a print out from Wikipedia, had it not been for the director’s pedigree and pre-assembled high profile cast, gets the go ahead. The result is a very odd film indeed, shot and paced like a meditation on one woman’s frustrated ambition and the not particularly atypical obstacles she has to overcome to achieve her entrepreneurial dreams. It’s brave for a director to stage a movie and each and every performance therein with dream-like placidity, keeping the audience at arm’s length at all times; a film that never peaks or dips, like QVC chair Bradley Cooper’s sales figures; but it makes for an unabsorbing spectacle. Indeed, Joy, for all its mannered quirkiness, may be unique in being a film with no dramatic integrity whatsoever.
If you’re tempting to cry foul at that, consider that any story can be compelling if it’s minded to take the audience on a psychological and emotional journey. But Joy, breezy in its heightened reality, riding the line between whimsical and flat, presents all the usual biopic tropes – childhood ambition, early life disappointments, relationship troubles, family angst and the bastards you meet along with the way, with all the dramatic engagement of a Wes Anderson comedy. Perhaps, David O. Russell would argue, that’s the point – a movie that subverts Hollywood’s imperative to overdramatise a life, with an eye on the contrivances and overwrought feeling of the daily soap operas that Joy’s mother enjoys, presenting it from the protagonist’s dreamy, askew point of view. Fine, but Joy’s head, though a determined and positive place to be, is an uninvolving world for the rest of us.
So Joy’s pretty joyless when it comes down to it. You enjoy the company of the characters, but in a bid to tell a sort of modern fairytale, O’ Russell’s filleted the story of all its interest. It’s something like a mood piece. Well alright, but for an audience to be fully invested in a character’s struggle and engage with their frustrations, they have to be able to latch on to some real feeling, something that resembles life. Joy gives you something sweet and curious but that’s not enough.