There's something intriguing about director David O. Russell's work since The Fighter. Where his earlier career is mired in violent outbreaks and abrasive cinema, he has suddenly become one of the most wholesome/tolerable auteurs of populous cinema. It isn't that he plays it safe, but has found a formula and a cast that are willing to bring his stories of the underdog to life in the same ways that James Stewart did with Frank Capra (though more crass). While his work continues to remain wildly inconsistent, his latest Joy is the perfect encapsulation of what his career means in 2015. It isn't just his take on feminism and economics. It's a film that wants to look at the process of selling an implausible vision - such as Jennifer Lawrence selling retractable mops. With this film, he perfects his formula and makes one of his career bests with a story that's strong and a funny bone to match.
Late in the film, Bradley Cooper makes the claim that, as head of K-Mart and the QVC Channel, that America brings the extraordinary and ordinary together. From the beginning of the film, this has never been truer for Russell's work. His camera has always been anxious to look cool, but rarely has his drama been this grounded. As Joy goes about leaving for work, she bumps into a variety of people from her family; all causing problems for her. It adds depth to the groaning airport worker, resulting in visual narration that is among his best work. It gives us a sense of who Joy is and allows the rest of the film to move fairly as she works her way up from the go getter to the actual achiever. It's the familiar underdog story, but Lawrence is so committed to her performance that there's a deeper drive on display. Whereas her acting with Russell before has been loud and expressive, this time it feels more focused and nuanced. She is like a lion awaiting to attack her prey.
Unlike Russell's past few films, this isn't exactly an ensemble picture. Yes, the cast is full of the great familiar faces such as Lawrence, Cooper, and Robert De Niro. However, the story of Joy says it all in the title. It's about Joy. She is the one overcoming adversity in order to be the successful entrepreneur. Even then, it would be criminal to ignore that the supporting cast does its fair share of plot development. De Niro may be a more antagonistic version of his Silver Linings Playbook character, but he adds a sincerity and heart to the role that makes even his most vile moment comedic. The same could be said for Edgar Ramirez as Joy's ex-husband, who is comically introduced singing music in Joy's basement to nobody. At the core, they are her biggest supporters and detractors, fleshing out her problematic life. While downgraded from his past few roles, Cooper's businessman character perfectly introduces the world to sales in ways that are far more intriguing than they have any right to be.
What works most of all is that this almost feels like Russell scoffing at films like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street. When his film starts, Joy is merely a housewife with ambition and a soap opera interest. She goes broke. She is forced to make tough calls to get people to believe in her. She puts in an effort that feels far more dignified and causes the comedy to be mined from a deeper and more personal place. Even if these films achieve different goals (Joy is more of a 21st economy fantasy than commentary), there's something reassuring about the underdog and her quest to meet her potential. The film opens with a young Joy, explaining that she doesn't need a prince to be happy. Even if the feminism in this film is largely debatable, the sentiment is an empowering one that draws the film to its best moments.
Russell's vision has rarely been this focused. Even if he's made better (The Fighter), there have been very few films in his catalog that have balanced the comedy and drama so well. What he has created is a world where both of them need each other to survive. It's a story that may seem like a feel good version of a gangster biopic, but so did American Hustle. The difference is that Joy is more reliant on character and end goals than individual moments. Yes, both have all of the Russell tropes, but they compliment the film perfectly here, resulting in something that feels playful. It also helps that Lawrence has rarely been this charismatic, adding depth to the character and making her story into something more wonderful. The music cues alone are interesting, especially as Nat King Cole sings along to Joy as she looks through a window. It's the perfect image.
Joy is a film that captures what makes Russell a populous auteur. He makes films for the every man who seeks to make a difference in the world. Unlike most other feel good peers, he does so with a genuine heart and edge that feel honest to the self. While the film is an attempt to be a fantasy of the modern era, it's just one that follows an interesting woman's rise to power and what focus can do for someone. Everything about the film explores the balance between style and realism, with Russell being Joy and this movie being the mop. Nobody would expect a film about such a mundane topic to be this interesting. However, it only takes the right voice to bring it to life. Thankfully, it turns out that these are the right people, and together they achieve the potential that they have been building for three films now. One can only imagine that they'll only get better after this.