David O. Russell is a Hollywood darling. “The Fighter”, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” have established him as a director who delivers intelligent, Scorsese-like entertainment on a regular basis. Whatever he touches turns to Oscar gold. But that wasn’t always the case. In 2004, audiences were befuddled by his scattershot philosophical comedy, “I Heart Huckabees”, a film which is remembered primarily for Russell’s on-set temper tantrums. And his follow-up, “Nailed”, was so calamitous that he abandoned the project: it was finally released last year, under a pseudonyn, as “Accidental Love”.
Why dredge up this ancient history now? Simply because Russell’s gloomily surreal new drama, “Joy”, seems to be a deliberate effort to end his award-winning run as a safe pair of hands and to remind us of the bridge-burning eccentric he used to be.
It’s strange, because on one level “Joy” is a conventionally inspiring tale of a plucky entrepreneur realising the American Dream. Based on the life story of Joy Mangano, its titular heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced mother who supports her family in the late 1980s by working at an airline ticket desk. As in Russell’s earlier film, “The Fighter”, that family is a many-headed monster of neurosis, dependence and ingratitude. Joy’s anxiety-prone, television-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen) never leaves her bedroom, even when she has flooded it by blocking the pipes. Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) and father (Robert De Niro on autopilot) are sharing her basement, with a toilet-paper borderline between their territories. And her half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm) delights in reminding Joy that she has made a mess of her life.
But it is a mess that she cleans up, in more ways than one, by developing and manufacturing a self-wringing Miracle Mop which she then sells on a fledgling home-shopping channel, QVC. Better still, she wins over viewers by rejecting the Barbie-style make-over foisted on her by the channel, and going on camera in her own casual clothes. Here, then, is a rousing feminist fable about an industrious inventor sticking to her guns (literally, in one scene, when she vents her frustrations at a firing range). But it is clear from the film’s opening seconds that Russell has something else in mind.
First of all, he replaces the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare with eerily tinny chimes. Then he cuts to a pastiche of a black-and-white daytime soap opera, followed by a puzzling caption informing us that the film is “inspired by the true stories of daring women”. And “Joy” continues in this woozily artificial vein for another two hours, with heightened dialogue, distracting camera angles, caricatured characters and theatrical sets. There are macabre homages to “Citizen Kane” and “Sunset Boulevard”, but the most obvious model – apart from Russell’s own “I Heart Huckabees” – is David Lynch’s oeuvre. If it weren’t for all the dream sequences, you might assume that the whole of “Joy” were a dream sequence.
Sometimes, the weirdness results in genuinely funny moments. Isabella Rossellini, in particular, relishes her role as an heiress who is dating Joy’s father but is devoted to the memory of her late husband, Morris. She may be willing to invest in the Miracle Mop, she says gravely, but only if Joy can answer Morris’s Four Questions of Financial Worthiness. But despite several other offbeat jokes, “Joy” never quite becomes a comedy. Rather, it seems that Russell is taking a perverse thrill in alienating the viewer and knocking the narrative off its redemptive course. What, for instance, are we to make of Bradley Cooper’s croaky-voiced, red-faced, bleary-eyed turn as the head of QVC? Did Russell edit out a scene in which he staggered into the office after a two-day drinking binge?
And what are we to make of Lawrence, who is not only too reserved and steely to elicit our sympathies but is also a decade too young for the role? It’s hardly the 25-year-old’s fault that she is so charismatic and bankable that Russell, among other directors, is determined to cast her wherever possible, but, as in “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook”, her baby-faced radiance sabotages the film. Joy is supposed to be an exhausted, overworked mother of two who can barely remember her childhood aspirations. It is supposed to be cruelly amusing when her grandmother (Diane Ladd) says, “You don’t exactly have your whole life ahead of you, but you still have a good proportion of it.” But Lawrence’s smooth-skinned Joy patently does have her whole life ahead of her, so the comment is just another indication that the film is unfolding in some bizarre alternate universe.
Perhaps Russell was so uncomfortable with the notion of a straightforward rags-to-riches biopic that he wanted to signal his ironic detachment from it. Or perhaps the trippiness is meant to imply that success in business is an illusion. Either way, there’s not much joy in “Joy”. For most viewers, bewilderment will be a more dominant emotion.
Joy is in cinemas now