Friday, January 8, 2016


Alternate Title:  Joylessness

One sentence synopsis:     A young woman caring for her extended, dysfunctional family, invents a new type of mop and struggles to build a business around it.

Things Havoc liked: Some things are as regular as the seasons themselves. Take wintertime, when we encounter short days and cold weather, the NFL playoffs, Christmas holidays, and of course, the most regular of all predictable events, the yearly David O. Russel movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper.

Yes, for the third year in a row (unless you count last year, but who does?), Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell has returned to the well, bringing us another movie about weird, quirky people starring the same weird quirky actors as his last weird, quirky movie. In 2012, there was Silver Linings Playbook, a cute little romanitc comedy about two utterly broken, manipulative people, and their only-slightly-less-broken families trying to help them. In 2013, it was American Hustle, a madcap romp through the worst of 70s hairstyles featuring Christian Bale as a con-man with a combover of the gods. And now we have Joy, which is a movie about a whole panoply of insane, needy characters, and the one person who tries her best to take care of them all.

Joy stars Jennifer Lawrence, one of your and my favorite young actresses, and a veteran of both of the films I cited above, playing Joy Mangano, who is a woman in greater need of a week-long vacation to Hawaii than anyone else you or I will ever meet. A prodigy with mechanics and construction (or as the hipsters around here call it nowadays, a "maker"), Joy is inspired to invent a new type of self-wringing mop after one-too-many accidents while trying to clean up broken glass around her dysfunctional house (more on this later), and spends the rest of the movie trying to flog it to consumers any which way she can, eventually landing on QVC, the famous home shopping network, the meaning of whose initials I never knew before I watched this movie. Joy Mangano is a real woman, who really did these things in 1989, though how truthful the movie is to the reality of her story, I cannot tell. Lawrence is superb in this movie, as she is in everything I see her in, as a young woman stretched to the breaking point by the demanding needs of her extended family (more on this later), two kids, two parents, an ex-husband, a jealous half-sister, a job she hates, a desire to succeed, bills, arrests, and the thousand frustrations of life. The character never comes across as a martyr (very easy to do in cases like this), nor as some kind of needy twit (ditto), but an eminently watchable character just trying to keep all the plates spinning, in circumstances that occasionally had me wanting to run out of the room screaming (more on this later).

So what else does the movie boast? Well there's a reason Russell keeps coming back to this cast. Bradley Cooper this time plays a producer and acolyte for QVC, a salesman with a slightly messianic bent who proselytizes the gospel according to home shopping networks. His role isn't huge, but he's a strange, vaguely-orgasmic character, who seems to regard the production of a successful infomercial and the sales that it generates as a cross between conducting a symphony and performing stage magic. Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen play Joy's father and mother respectively, the former a lonely, embittered car mechanic with good intentions and terrible habits, the latter a cloistered, dependent shut-in with no sense of perspective beyond the walls of her room. Both De Niro and Madsen are excellent in roles that have them screaming and breaking things and tearfully apologizing seconds later, be those things a water glass or their daughter's life and career. Edgar Ramirez, of Zero Dark Thirty (among other things) manages to be affable and appealing despite playing a deadbeat loser still living in his ex-wife's basement, while the eternally-glamorous Isabella Rossellini plays a wealthy widow whose business acumen is not quite the equal of the cold merciless demeanor she puts on when dealing with it. All of these are good actors, each of which have fun, meaty roles to play, which has always been the hallmark of Russell's success.

Things Havoc disliked: This time, however, the service all this talent is put to lets the whole movie down.

For a movie called Joy, this film is one of the hardest things I've had to watch since Leviathan mercifully ended, and the reason for that is because every one of these excellent actors, Lawrence excluded, has been instructed to put all their talent and skill towards portraying characters that I simply wanted to kill for almost all of the run-time of the film. The tone is set early on, when De Niro, fresh from another divorce, returns to Joy's house expecting to be given a place to stay, only to instantly confront and insult his first ex-wife and embark on a tirade against her that culminates in him violently smashing things while screaming invective. He apologizes, pro-forma of course, but treats the event as no big deal, expecting Joy to simply accept him acting in this way whenever he wants. So does Joy's mother, who watches soap operas all day and demands that Joy deal with every intrusion on her life from bills to repairs without even requiring her to lay eyes on other human beings. So does her sister, a thoroughly loathsome bitch seething with barely-suppressed jealousy, who sabotages her constantly in front of her children, business partners, and family. And Joy simply takes it, accepting the abuse and the negging and the jealousy and the dysfunction and the constant bickering fights that swirl around her. To Lawrence and Russell's credit, the film doesn't try to make her a stand-in for Jesus, but it does rob the audience of any sense of catharsis, as we are left sitting there waiting for Lawrence to do the sensible thing and throw everyone into an active volcano. Because she does not do this, we are left watching these awful, awful people for hours on end, and the skill with which the various actors blame Lawrence for every problem, denigrate and sabotage her constantly, and act like entitled dicks, only makes everything worse.

I grant, this isn't the first time that Russell has mined this particular vein of crazy, as Silver Linings Playbook had an extended family around the protagonist that was reasonably dysfunctional, while 2011's The Fighter had one that was utterly irredeemable and manipulative.  The devil here, though, is in the details. Silver Linings Playbook had protagonists who were considerably crazier than their extended families, and the madness that encircled them was there to showcase just how they might have come by their own issues.  The Fighter, meanwhile, a movie I had a lot more trouble with, gave the extended family (particularly Christian Bale), enough self-awareness to develop an arc over the course of our time spent with them.  It's a lot easier to spend an hour in the company of an awful person if there's a purpose to it beyond misery, and Joy has no such purpose.  Her family are terrible, manipulative, soul-excoriating people when they begin the film, and remain so even into the end-of-movie voiceover.

And on top of that, there's an issue with Russell's writing, normally as sharp as it comes, but this time so over-written, so impossibly on-the-nose, that it exacerbates all of the film's flaws. This isn't a movie where characters are allowed to simply emote or act, they must explain, in great and exacting detail, what they are feeling at this exact moment and how that relates to the arc of their lives. So it is that when Joy looks like she is faced with bankruptcy after her business is knocked onto the ropes by incompetence on the part of her family and outright theft on the part of her suppliers, her family gathers together to enact an elaborate after-action breakdown, in which they discuss, over and over again and in explicit detail, how this happened because Joy is a loser, who should not be in business, because she is weak, and will lose all her money, which she just did, because she is a loser, and has now lost her money, as losers do, and must now file for bankruptcy, the papers for which are right over here, which she should sign right now, signifying that she is a loser, who lost all her money, because she doesn't know anything about business, as the papers will attest to, which is why she should sign them, because then everyone will know she is a loser, who has lost all of her money in a risky business venture, which she should never have been in, because she should instead go home and be a loser, which is all she is, as attested to by the fact that she lost all her money, so she should sign the forms right now, and then everyone will forever know that she is a loser, whose life ended on this day after she lost all her money, and that will be the abrupt end of her story, with no possible chance of redemption, certainly.

Final thoughts:    Joy is not a badly-made movie, but it is a movie I flat out did not enjoy the act of watching, and had I been unable to make snarky comments about the awful people on screen, I would have enjoyed it even less. Plenty of movies are made about terrible people, including several films I have enjoyed tremendously, from Pain & Gain, to Russell's own American Hustle. This film, however, presents us terrible people not so that we may understand them or take pleasure in their sleaziness and greed, nor enjoy the act of watching them fail, but so that they can be inflicted on the main character, and thereby on us, for more than two hours without any compensating gain for our trouble. As such, despite the pedigree and the acting on offer, Joy is a film I simply wanted to end, and could not find much reason, in retrospect, to recommend to anyone. After all, even if you're a die-hard Jennifer Lawrence fan, and I have been accused of such in the past, surely you would prefer to see her in a role that serves some purpose beyond showering everyone with misery until the lights come up.

After all, if I wanted that, I'd go see an Alejandro Iñárritu movie.
Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  I go see an Alejandro Iñárritu movie.

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