David O. Russell’s “Joy” (2015)

In 2015, director David O. Russell was 57 years old and in the prime of his career. He had made a succession of three increasingly well-received features, and there seemed to be no end in sight to his hot streak.  The process of making THE FIGHTER (2010), SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) enabled him to find and hone his artistic identity while working with a consistent set of collaborators who helped to unlock his full potential.  His collaborations with actress Jennifer Lawrence seemed particularly potent, with the Oscar-winner’s salty effervescence flourishing to new heights under his direction.  Similarly, Russell’s creative energies were electrified by the discovery of his muse– but just as a muse can bring out the very best in a director, so too can he develop an overreliance that blinds him to the practical necessities of the project at hand.  This would seem to be the case with Russell’s fourth feature after his mid-career renaissance– 2015’s JOY, a project that saw his greatest assets become severe liabilities.  All the ingredients of Russell’s creative alchemy– a talented roster of familiar performers, a working-class East Coast setting, his massive reworking of an existing script (in this case, a draft by Annie Mumulo (1)) to better fit his tastes– were present for JOY, but for whatever infuriatingly unknown reason, his magic spell had been broken.  Despite its modest success at the box office, JOY came to be critically regarded as a bucket of ice thrown on Russell’s hot streak– a creative failure unable to live up to the expectations set by his previous three films.  


The third of Russell’s films during this period to shoot in the greater Boston area without actually being set there, JOY exercises a staggering degree of creative license in its telling of the rags-to-riches story of inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano.  Indeed, he takes the basic framework of Joy’s narrative — from her invention of a redesigned mop in a sleepy Long Island town to her ultimate command of a global business empire — and reworks every element to create a 100% fictional tale that plays to his directorial strengths.  Jennifer Lawrence earned her third consecutive Oscar nomination under Russell’s direction and won the Golden Globe for her performance as the titular Joy, a determined and enterprising single mom who has grown frustrated and exhausted after a promising childhood of imagination and genius was derailed by a demanding and confining adulthood.  Her natural talents have turned against her, enabling the debilitating dependency of her immediate family– they drag her down when they should hold her up.  She’s now in her mid-thirties, and labors all day as a booking clerk for a small airline only to come home to a frenzied home situation with her young daughter, her needy live-in parents and grandmother, and even her ex-husband, who has taken up residence in her basement following their divorce.  One night, a vision of her childhood self comes to her in a dream, confronting her about the imagination and wonder she’s since lost.  Joy wakes up re-inspired, channeling her newfound energy into the invention of a radically redesigned mop that holds the potential to fundamentally transform her life for the better– but in order to set herself free, she will first have to put everything on the line.

Lawrence delivers a dependably brilliant performance, albeit one that’s hampered by a fatal flaw– she’s simply too young to portray a woman in her late 30’s and early 40’s with 100% believability.  In what has to be an entertainment industry first, her youth actually works against her, preventing the audience from fully suspending their disbelief.  The fault lies not with Lawrence, but with Russell, who is so enamored with the talents and physicality of his muse that he’s willing to trade the practical necessities of his story for them.  As a study of a woman’s development over several decades, there is an intangible component of Lawrence’s casting that works in an expressionistic sense, but most audiences will not see it that way– instead they will only see a casting choice that flagrantly trespasses the bounds of credulity.  Thankfully, Lawrence’s performance is given the weight it requires thanks to the unwavering commitment of her supporting cast.  Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper both benefit from their familiarity with Russell in their third collaboration together.  DeNiro plays Joy’s father, Rudy: a crotchety auto body shop owner and a combative, self-centered dad whose emotional growth lies in his active support of Joy’s business endeavor.  Cooper channels a quiet intensity as Neil Walker, the QVC executive who is instrumental in getting Joy’s mop into the hands of consumers.  He’s a kind and decent man, but he’s not with without a tempered swagger, envisioning himself as a new-wave studio mogul.  Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, and Isabella Rossellini constitute the new recruits of Russell’s loyal repertory ensemble, each delivering a dynamic and memorable performance that effortlessly gels with Russell’s artistic character.  Ramirez portrays Joy’s ex-husband Tony, a nightclub singer whose specialty is salsa covers of pop songs.  Initially presented as a rakish playboy, he proves himself a devoted father and loyal partner to Joy in business (if not matrimony).  Ladd plays Joy’s grandmother Mimi, a glamorous and ethereal lady who is a fundamental force in her granddaughter’s life, even though she’s been recently shunted to the periphery.  There’s an air of magical realism to her character, evidenced most directly in the fact that her voiceover narration throughout the film is revealed to be coming from a different plane of existence beyond the grave.  The extremely underrated Madsen plays Joy’s mother, Terry: a soap opera fanatic suffering from a bout of depression that has left her voluntarily bedridden and dependent on her daughter in a way that reverses the mother-daughter dichotomy.  Rossellini’s eccentric physicality proves the perfect fit for the role of Trudy, a rich Italian widow and Rudy’s new girlfriend.  She eventually funnels a large portion of her late husband’s fortune into Joy’s endeavor, entangling her in such a manner that she becomes a unique and inspired foil to Joy’s ambitions when things go south.  

Russell and his AMERICAN HUSTLE cinematographer Linus Sandgren reimplement the particular visual style that has marked his work as of late, albeit with a few changes.  Shooting on super 35mm film, Russell and Sandgren deviate from Scope to embrace the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which proves appropriate for a tighter compositional approach comprised mostly of closeups.  One might think that a story about the reinvention of a mop doesn’t necessarily lend itself to dynamic cinematography, but Russell and company do exactly that, employing a restless camera that constantly roves around his scenes in search of fluid compositions.  It takes no less than four editors — Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, and Christopher Tellefson — to blend Russell’s dizzying mix of cranes, dolly moves and steadicam shots into a kinetic, just-barely-contained brew.  Russell augments this approach with cascading waves of overlapping dialogue and music, scattering our bearings just as we’ve got them in a bid to reflect the chaos of Joy’s inner life as the sole provider of a family who threatens to drown her with their neediness.  A wintry palette of cold hues further echoes Joy’s quiet despair, which Russell counters with the whimsical warmth of Christmas trimmings and a series of fantasy sequences that resemble old-fashioned Hollywood musicals in their theatricality.  He also uses the visual language of cheesy, overlit soap operas in recurring interludes that allow Joy to directly confront and challenge the social expectations of “the wife & mother”, albeit in the fantastical realm of an unconscious dreamscape, further distinguishing herself apart from it via her ambitions and worldview.  Just as he did with AMERICAN HUSTLE, Russell implements a sprawling, Scorsese-style approach to music– JOY’s selection of needledrops span a wide range of genres, from the iconic rock of Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones to the colorful flavor of salsa and the vibrant, brassy energy of big band swing.  The original score — composed by David Campbell and West Dylan Thordsen — takes a back seat to JOY’s pre-existing music bed, supplying a very slight layer of ethereal piano and strings to support its title character’s emotional journey like a fragile spiderweb.  

As the fourth film in Russell’s self-described series about “ordinary people living passionately”, JOY is part and parcel with the major themes that preoccupy him at this stage of his career.  The east coast working class setting allows Russell to better penetrate the psyches of his characters via a backdrop that he’s quite familiar with.  The rambling spirit that marked AMERICAN HUSTLE’s prioritization of character over story bleeds over into JOY, leaving Russell’s storytelling feeling frequently unfocused or distracted– but at least the characters themselves are compelling and eminently watchable.  Normally, this would be the part where I argue a well-balanced and focused story is integral to the emotional effectiveness of a film, but when faced with a story that, on its face, is about the reinvention of household cleaning supplies, Russell’s heavy skewing towards character is understandable.  Russell’s films also often feature the protagonist working to discover or assert his or her identity, a quest that prompts friction or outright hostility from immediate family members with opposing values.  Familial conflict is the major hinge on which the stakes of his stories pivot, eschewing flashier cinematic stakes like “life or death” or “the end of the world”.  JOY further carves out Russell’s space in this niche to find that awkward dramatic place between support and hostility, pitting Joy against her own parents as she attempts to mount and subsequently salvage her risky business endeavor.  Finally, one of Russell’s more unsavory artistic traits — a verbally abusive streak and a hair-trigger temper — threatens to flare back up after he had seemingly beaten it back during his artistic reformation. Whispers of Russell’s clashes with Amy Adams on the set of AMERICAN HUSTLE bubbled up along the fringes of that film’s release chatter, and JOY would find him once again dogged by rumors about his conduct, this time towards Lawrence– to the extent that Lawrence took it upon herself to release a public statement denying the rumors (2).  One might think it unthinkable that Russell’s temper and ego would get the better of him when his prior collaborations with Lawrence had been so fruitful and full of mutual admiration, but it also goes to show that creativity has a dark side that can be equally as passionate.  In any case, any ruffled feathers seem to have since been smoothed over, judging by Lawrence’s Golden Globes acceptance speech wherein she proclaimed that she’d “like to be buried alongside” Russell.   

Twentieth Century Fox released JOY on Christmas Day 2015 to modest box office receipts and mixed reviews, with Lawrence’s performance receiving the bulk of critics’ praise.  The perennial awards favorite would have to settle this time for only a single Academy Award nomination for Lawrence, but it nonetheless reinforced his reputation as a dependable deliveryman of accolades for his cast.  Her nomination was not without objection, however– many saw her casting as emblematic of a larger ineffectual indulgence on Russell’s part, having become so reliant on his muse and stylistic quirks that he failed to heed what the project truly demanded of him.  Indeed, a feeling that Russell had overreached, or had bought into his own hype to his detriment, pervaded JOY’s reception.  An argument could be made that he had reworked Annie Mumolo’s original script so thoroughly to best fit his strengths, that he simply failed to challenge himself.  Thus, it might not be particular details like Lawrence’s casting or an unfocused narrative, but a general blanket of complacency that ultimately resulted in JOY’s underwhelming effect.

It remains to be seen if JOY is indeed the end of Russell’s recent hot streak, or merely a momentary aberration.  Perhaps it was only a natural part of the artistic cycle; after all, not even the best of directors– including Russell’s stylistic forebear, Scorsese — can sustain a prolonged run of excellence.  The overwhelming praise lavished upon his previous three films condemns JOY to dwell by association in their shadow, making it difficult to judge the film on its own merits.  Remove the golden veneer of what came before, however, and one might uncover a passionately-crafted character piece that is far more exciting and compelling than a story about the reinvention of the mop has any right to be.  Its watchability is a major testament to the performances and Russell’s brilliance as a director, who despite his flagging critical returns is still operating on a level of originality and energy that’s simply unmatched by most directors of his generation.  If JOY’s press materials reveal anything about him, it’s that he knows exactly who he is as an artist– he’s extremely cognizant about the themes and ideas that interest him and that fuel his creativity.  In a profession where most of its practitioners tend to “feel it out” and go with gut instincts, it can’t be overstated how useful a fully-realized knowledge of self can be to an artist.  Many filmmakers never reach that level of total self-awareness, but those who do empower themselves to command their craft with the utmost precision.  It’s clear in hindsight that Russell reached this rarefied artistic plane sometime around THE FIGHTER, and it’s only a matter of time until he leverages his abilities and reinstalls himself within the awards circuit shortlists.  

JOY is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.


Produced by: John Davis, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Ken Mok, David O. Russell

Written by: David O. Russell

Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren

Production Designer: Judy Becker

Edited by: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, Christopher Tellefson

Music by: David Campbell, West Dylan Thordsen