Has the David O. Russell hype train already crashed & burned? It wasn’t until 2012’s commercially-palatable mental health rom-com/drama Silver Linings Playbook that the director started to get his dues as a weirdo auteur, despite putting out quality work as far back as 1994’s uncomfortable black comedy Spanking the Monkey. Two Jennifer Lawrence collaborations later & critical consensus already feels like it’s turning on him, aiming to brush him off as a hack. It’s a total shame too. I understand, to a point, the complaints that Russell’s American Hustle resembled Scorsese’s Goodfellas a little too closely, but if you’re going to pay homage to something, why not make it one of the greatest films ever made? The complaints about his more-recent film, Joy, are a little more confounding to me. In some ways Russell is merely keeping the Goodfellas vibes rolling into the next picture & continuing his somewhat easy collaborations with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro in a film that might be a little too Hallmarkish for the hard-to-please, but if that’s all you see going on in Joy, you’re missing out on the much stranger big picture. It feels like Russell is really working out some half-formed new ideas here & watching him reach for that new, unexplored territory is fascinating stuff, making for the best film I think he’s made in years.
Expectation might be to blame for what turned a lot of audiences off from Joy. Based on the advertising, I know a lot of folks expected an organized crime flick about a mob wife, not the deranged biopic about the woman who invented the Miracle Mop that was delivered. Even more so, I believe that audiences expected a lighthearted drama from the guy who made Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, Joy finds Russell exploring the same weirdo impulses that lead him to making I ♥ Huckabees, an absurdist comedy that might be the very definition of “not for everyone”. Personally, I love Huckabees. It’s my favorite thing thing Russell’s ever done. Joy is certainly not as eccentric or as deliberately off-putting as Huckabees can be, but it does establish a delirious rhythm & nearly all-white visual palette that hits on the same anything-can-happen tone Huckabees delivered. By the time Joy delves into immersive soap opera & QVC imagery, the film has already established a dream-like sense of self-logic that makes the whole thing feel natural, despite television’s sterilized otherworldliness. Also like Huckabees, Joy plays its humor completely straight, with only the slightest hint of quirk prompting you to treat it like a comedy. The soap opera camp & Isabella Rossellini’s over-the-top performance in Joy were some of the funniest moments I had witnessed in the theater in all of 2015, but for some reason the audience I was with met them with more exasperated “That’s just ridiculous” comments instead of genuine laughter.
I, for one, welcome David O. Russell’s return to not-for-everyone cinema. The problem is that Joy might not have gone far enough in its Huckabees-esque absurdity. There is an admitted Hallmark/Lifetime-esque quality to the film that compels it to hammer every point home, to tie a bow on every resolved conflict. The dialogue indulges in some wholesome cheese in lines like “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary”, [from a young Joy playing happily-ever-after-type games] “I don’t need a prince”, and [from an adult Joy to her young daughter] “Don’t take any guff from anybody.” Worse yet is a completely unnecessary narrator who constantly reminds us that Joy is a “matriarch” or that she & her ex-husband are “the best married couple in America.” That aspect of Joy seems to be at war with the film’s strangest impulses, such as introducing a soap opera character who “came back as a ghost with even greater power”, including an extended cameo in which Melissa Rivers (all-too convincingly) portrays her recently-departed mother, and saddling its protagonist with a family so unbearably awful that you could easily forgive her for burning the house down with them all locked inside.
I would like to say with confidence that this contrast between the absurd & the maudlin was entirely intentional, that Russell was merely trying to reflect the mundane trashiness of his subject’s QVC/Miracle Mop subject. The truth is, though, that I have no idea. Joy is an odd compromise of things I loved & things I could’ve done without. The dream-like quality of the rhythm is fascinating, but the narration knocks its ambition down a peg. It’s Russell’s most experimental film in a decade, but it borrows heavily from not only Scorsese, but also from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in one particular scene, I could swear that Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” would play at any second). Isabella Rossellini’s monologue about “The 4 Questions of Financial Worthiness” was one of 2015’s funniest moments to me, but the humor is played so dryly it doesn’t seem to register with half its audience. If nothing else, what’s clear when you consider all of these self-contradicting qualities as a whole is that David O. Russell has made something oddly idiosyncratic here that can be a joy to watch if you can get on its dual arty & maudlin wavelengths. That’s good enough for me.