Here’s to all past, present, and future collaborations between Jennifer Lawrence and director David O. Russell. Thus far, they have made Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and now Joy. Silver Linings Playbook was romantic screwball comedy at its finest, American Hustle was drama/comedy of the darkest sort, and Joy is another screwball comedy that wouldn’t have been at all out of place in the WPA 1930’s and early ’40’s. I imagine the titanic Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve) is surely smiling from beyond the grave.
What movie executive in his right mind greenlights a story about a mop? What audience, of even one, could possibly care about a story of a mop? And yet, like so many of the best films, all it takes is a visionary director and his muse. And what a muse Lawrence is. While pondering her performance, I thought to myself that many actresses nowadays are very good at sophisticated comedy, especially someone like Anna Kendrick; but to simultaneously juggle light comedy with darker underpinnings, like her roles in Silver Linings and Joy, there is only Lawrence, just like in the 1930’s and 1940’s there was only Barbara Stanwyck. And therein lie the twin touchstones for Lawrence and Russell.
Preston Sturges was a master of screwball comedy during the 1940’s, and in The Lady Eve (1941), Stanwyck played a con artist who is very funny in her pursuit of the mark played by Henry Fonda, but also the most sharply cynical tack in every room she enters, yet her performance seems effortless and effervescent. Howard Hawks was another master of the screwball, as well as every other genre, and directed Stanwyck in perhaps the smartest and most sophisticated of all comedies, Ball of Fire (also 1941). In that film, she also has one of the all-time great movie names, Sugarpuss O’Shea, and again, hers is the art of the con, whose object this time is Gary Cooper. In both films, she must find the perfect balance of comedy and benightedness, and she achieved this with the success that perhaps no other of the great actresses of that era could have (rather improbably, in 1941, in addition to those two films, she also made Meet John Doe).
Lawrence has this same uncanny ability, but with her, it’s all in her eyes. In a nanosecond, they flash from innocence to anger to steely determination to calm, in any order, always as if she’s not even acting, but just simply living. I’m a firm believer in not just enjoying contemporary art, but in attempting to place it in a larger context, to determine not only how it stacks up with its forbears, but also how it will hold up, how it will be remembered and placed (or not) in a future cannon. And time and again, in the three Russell films, and in Serena and Winter’s Bone, Lawrence has proved she is surely destined for acting immortality.
In Joy, Lawrence plays the inventor of The Miracle Mop; “Oh, how exciting,” we may sardonically say. But in Russell’s supremely kinetic style, rapt is the word that comes to mind. Most of his characters are quickly introduced, many of them wacky, including Joy’s broken mother (Virginia Madsen, in her best role since Sideways), Joy’s self-serving father (Russell regular Robert DeNiro), his new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), Joy’s ex-husband, who lives in her basement (Edgar Ramirez), and best of all, Joy’s adoring and ever-encouraging grandmother (Diane Ladd). And, even though so many of these supporting players are superficially wacky, as in so many screwball comedies, just as Sturges and Hawks did, Russell has an abiding respect for them, always finding their deep humanity, especially those who, like Sisyphus, struggle defiantly against all odds. Just as in Sturges and Hawks, this group of people, under adversity, pull together to form a united front for a common goal. And then, at the half way mark, like icing on the cake, Russell treats us to another of his core trio of regulars, Bradley Cooper, as her mentor at the TV shopping channel where she attempts to sell her mop. Cooper again astounds, in a vastly overlooked performance, in his purring, sometimes barely audible understatement.
Joy is a wonderful movie in so many ways, chiefly for Jennifer Lawrence’s marvelous performance, and for David O. Russell’s dazzling, dancingly choreographed direction. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 5/3/16