Thursday, May 26, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Joy" is Jennifer Lawrence's Best Performance

Jennifer Lawrence
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: X-Men: Apocalypse is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Joy is Jennifer Lawrence's best performance.

To an extent, it is crazy to think of how viable Jennifer Lawrence has become in only five years. While she has been a working actress for well over a decade, the massive rise seems to be unprecedented, or at least a sign of the increasingly rare star power talent. While she did gain an Oscar nomination for her work in Winter's Bone, it was 2012 that marked her shift towards cultural icon with the first entry in The Hunger Games and her Oscar-winning performance for Silver Linings Playbook. The X-Men franchise wasn't too far behind and by then, she was an unstoppable force, managing to swerve back and forth between franchise films and a winning streak (Oscar-wise) as David O. Russell's ingenue. There's little to stop her at this point.

Like most people, I generally enjoy her work and definitely think that she has the charisma that makes for a great entertainer. I'd even argue that The Hunger Games is among the best Y/A movie franchises (with Mockingjay Part 1 being severely underrated), thanks in part to her. However, there is a question that can be asked of someone who has saturated the market so much that she seems to be popping up every three months: What is her best performance? There is a general consensus that it is probably the role that earned her the Oscar, Silver Linings Playbook. Many would even argue that she hasn't quite captured the magic that she did with Winter's Bone where she begun the ascension into pop culture stardom. These are all fine choices, and I think that to an extent her best work is ahead of her. However, I honestly think that Joy could probably be her best at this point in time.

At the time, I was enthusiastic about the film and would even call it Russell's best film since The Fighter. However, I have felt some apprehension when having to deal with the popular criticisms. Yes, she did get an Oscar nomination for the role. However, there seemed to be a sense of fatigue with her work come Christmas Day 2015. It was good, but there were many who could poke holes and argue that it's not Russell or Lawrence's best work. I understand that media is subjective, so there will always be different reads. However, and it's an opinion that I still hold, the film reflects both the director and the star working together in their most streamlined manner. Silver Linings Playbook still feels too shy to fully address the mental illness. American Hustle, while an enjoyable hodgepodge, was the most blatant example of banking off of Lawrence's popularity by making her fit into a story that didn't need her.

Admittedly, the alternatives don't offer much else by which to judge. Nobody does their best work in franchise movies. Frankly, it would be difficult to assess why Lawrence is a really good actress if one was to go off of every film prior to Joy. This isn't to say that she lacks charisma. It's that she is a piece in the puzzle instead of the whole product. Considering that Russell is a populous auteur; making dramas that appeal to the masses; it makes sense that his ode to motherhood is one that is fraught with his typical blend of comedy and conflict. Those who find his rambling style too sloppy took offense to the film's pacing. In fairness, Joy is populated with characters who maybe are a little too archetypal. Maybe the plot about a woman selling a mop is also a little easy to ridicule. However, one needs to look closer at Lawrence's lead performance to fully appreciate the achievement in such a mundane idea.

Unlike most actresses, Lawrence's big trope is that she plays older women. This is no exception. However, it could be in part because the confidence that she exudes manages to make the story better. In an early scene, she manages to depict the chaos that unravels in her life as she deals with a negligent father and a family with problems that include her sister marrying the plumber who fixes a floorboard. It's a lot of chaos, and Lawrence manages to embody the struggle with grief and calmness, depending on what the event called for. She is someone who tries to find her use in the business world before landing on the mop business. The story from there is one that turns into its own commentary on Russell's career as a director. He makes movies about absurd things, but manages to add enough flair to get people to buy it.

It may seem silly to suggest that the film has a nuanced self-indulgence, but it generally adds to the complexity of the role. Lawrence rarely gets a chance to play a woman with a life as complicated as this. While she eventually becomes a saleswoman that goes from parking lot to prime real estate on TV, she also has a sense of poise that develops. Many have compared the third act to a faux-gangster story in which Lawrence corners the market on her business, and thus finds her empowerment. This wouldn't be too out of line, considering that many considered American Hustle to be "Martin Scorsese lite." This may add to an offbeat tone, but one that feels as advantageous as its subject. By the end, succeeding in the world is like running a one person mob, and Joy does it with ease.

I get that there's a lot to dislike about the film. After all, it's not as riveting as Russell's look at boxing, mental illness, or con artists. One could even ask why the story of someone selling a mop is a story worth making a movie about. I'd argue that it's a legitimate point (what's next, the inventor of the snow globe?). However, I do think that Russell and Lawrence manage to curb the downside by focusing on what makes their partnership so enduring and why Lawrence is inevitably a star. Admittedly, it's one of her scruffier movies. But it does what every other film doesn't. It gives her a chance to act while showing range with a story that is more than worthy of her talents. The one thing to remember is that talent can trump content sometimes. For instance, Sally Field's performance in Norma Rae is far more memorable than the film itself (save for the great lead song "It Goes Like It Goes"). While it is too early to compare Lawrence to Field, it is evidence of what one can do with subject matter that is otherwise conventional.

Maybe Joy will never quite have the legacy of Russell's previous films, likely even going down as one of his misfires. I understand that it would be difficult to take a film like this seriously. However, I still think that it manages to show what Lawrence can do as a performer in 2015. It's a film centered around her and for the first time she gets to do more with it than play in conventional franchise mode. Maybe it's a little rough going, but generally that is more exciting than her so-so performance in American Hustle or the melodramatic Silver Linings Playbook. Maybe she just needs to star in better movies. Either way, I think that she's an interesting performer and Joy is a film that fills me more with hope than dread of her impending hold on pop culture, even if I'm sure that even she is sick of those X-Men movies. 

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