David O’Russell must really love Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The latest collaboration of this celebrated trio is Joy, a loosely based biopic on the life of American inventor Joy Mangano. While it is a solid film fueled by yet another Academy Award-nominated performance by Jennifer Lawrence, it’s also clear that Joy is a much weaker motion picture than Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. And I t’s not even a debate.
It’s hard to review Joy without discussing Mangano’s life, and I suppose certain details may be considered spoilers if you’ve never heard of her or see the trailer (or even just the poster). But since this is Spoiler-Free Reviews, I’m just going to assume that you don’t know anything at all other the basic premise: Joy is a single mother struggling to make ends meet while taking care of everyone in her family from her parents (played by Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen) to her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez). And yet, she still dreams big, and as the opening caption of the film will tell you, she is an inspirational woman.
As such, there is a sense of inevitability about the movie even if you don’t know who Joy Mangano is. She goes through plenty of heartache and frustration and despair, but you do get the sense that everything will eventually be okay in the end. Credit to O’Russell for still keeping the story relatively intriguing, with moments of hard-hitting drama and tension — though very little comedy, which begs the question why it is listed as a comedy-drama and was nominated as a comedy at the Golden Globes (I guess if The Martian is a comedy then any movie could be one too). The pacing could have been better, as it does drag at times and feels longer than its already-long 124-minute running time.
The Academy must also love Jennifer Lawrence because I’m not sure her performance in Joy was one of the top 5 female performances of the year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really really good, probably top 10, as she completely drives the movie from start to finish, though I still got the feeling that she was probably miscast — she simply looks too young and fresh-faced to be totally convincing as a single mother of three who has lived a really hard life.
Apart from Lawrence, the rest of the supporting cast deliver fine performances as well. It’s more or less expected when you have the likes of De Niro, Bradley Cooper and Isabella Rossellini on the roster. However, Lawrence is the clear standout, and despite my misgivings about the suitability of her casting, she gives it everything she has to elevate the movie above what it otherwise would have been in less capable hands.
This is not Lawrence’s fault, but I also felt the film was lionising the protagonist a little too much. Joy is practically a saint in this movie and it never changes despite some really nasty stuff happening to her. It may be all true, but it would have been nice to see more “human” emotions from her character to keep it interesting.
Overally, Joy is a solid and occasionally very good biographical drama thanks to the direction of O’Russell and a great performance from Lawrence. The problems I had with it perhaps lay more with the script than anything else. It’s an inspirational story, but it’s one that also feels overlong and somewhat repetitive in that it keeps putting Joy down so that we can all feel the joy (pun intended) when things finally start going right for her. The result is O’Russell’s least impressive effort in recent years, though by most other standards it’s still a pretty enjoyable film.
3.5 stars out of 5