The connection between a director and their actors is sacred. While it isn't always a positive one, it's incredibly important for them to communicate during and after production. In the case of writer/director David O. Russell and performers Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, they continue to pop up every so often with a film that generally always generates Oscar buzz. While I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook and was unimpressed with American Hustle, Joy had the potential to be a fascinating story in an age where women are finally receiving a stronger presence in filmmaking. Despite its relatively decent trailer, Russell's newest feature is perhaps one of his most underwhelming recent works.
Following Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), her father (Robert De Niro), and a couple other generations of family members, this biographical picture tells the story of a daring individual. Despite all those telling her that she would never be successful, Joy managed to rise as a founder and matriarch of a powerful family business that introduced the idea that is the mop.
The overall framework for Joy is established via a family member of the title character, who acts much like a fairy godmother in a fairy tale. Nearly every pivotal moment in the film contains her narration, which makes no sense in the context of the story. The idea that Russell and Annie Mumolo brought to the screen is an inspiring one, but when the film needs to tell us that it's "daring," it pulls some of the sentiments out of it. We don't need to be told when something is bold, as it should speak for itself. The first act will be familiar to those who have seen this filmmaker's previous works, as it contains a lot of hectic and chaotic dialogue with characters talking over one another. However, each role is incredibly one-dimensional. Any individual that isn't entirely supportive of Joy is portrayed to be an absolute villain with nothing better to do other than spoil her success. It greatly resembles a fairy tale, but it doesn't work.
However, the film isn't an absolute disaster from start to finish. The second act is actually quite mesmerizing. When Joy introduces the mop to Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) at QVC, she insists on showing the product on television herself. The stakes are established successfully, making this portion of the film the only genuine aspect of the entire feature. Not only is it insanely entertaining to watch Joy walk across the sets and prepare for her big moment, but it makes for an incredibly tense sequence where anything could go wrong. This is the only time where Joy comes across as a real person, rather than the caricature that is painted of her for the majority of the running time.
Once the QVC portion comes to an end, the remainder of the film returns back to many of the issues found previously. It's tonally all over the place. One moment it wants to be a witty comedy, and the next it wants to be a serious biography. Yet, it falls flat on both fronts. Much of the drama comes from flashbacks to Joy's childhood, which makes for a conflicting tone to what is being shown when the story returns to the main plot. If you thought that the first act was corny, you're in for something much worse in the final fifteen minutes or so. Joy attempts to be a tearjerker in the most manipulative ways possible. Nothing about it feels honest. The initial story has good intentions, but it fails in nearly every way when it comes to execution.
Regardless of the material, Jennifer Lawrence always manages to be charming and convincing. Her portrayal of Joy works, as she tries to make the tacky dialogue work. While she isn't quite able to make this underwhelming feature a good one, she does make it bearable. Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and Édgar Ramirez have smaller roles that compliment Lawrence's main performance rather well, although there isn't anything here that warrants any awards attention. It's clear that they're doing what they can to improve the screenplay, but even the best performances in the world can't save disastrous writing.
The Fighter remains to be writer/director David O. Russell's strongest film, but otherwise, I haven't found him to be as great of a filmmaker as many have made him out to be. He often has difficulty with holding a tonally sound feature, and his films are generally bloated towards the final act. Unfortunately, Joy is an absolute mess. It's all over the place with its tone, direction, and overall narrative. The QVC segments in the second act are incredibly strong, but the same cannot be said for the remainder of the film. Jennifer Lawrence does what she can with a convincing performance, but nothing could save this picture from its weak execution. Joy turns a potentially inspirational film into a tacky mess. Rent it.