If David O. Russell started setting his movies a little closer to the south of America, if instead of the interiors of houses that once were advertised as a new suburbia, they took place in the type of decaying mansions a ghost might walk through, without a change to a single line of dialogue, they could comfortably fit in the gothic realm. Jennifer Lawrence, as Joy, stumbles into her house, burdened by the voices that call at her from bedrooms, from basements, from her past; she falls asleep on the stairs, on the floor, on a couch that’s too small, and dreams of a personal trial, like the one James Stewart squirmed through in Vertigo; she fights for self-awareness, saying things like, “I feel like I’m in a prison,” and, “I don’t want to end up like my family!”
As it is, this is a movie that lives, like all of Russell’s recent works, the third in three years released around Christmas Day, in what we might call fluid realism — the characters react as people might, and the scenario is loosely based around something that was autobiographical to some writer at some point (here it’s Joy Mangano), but the plot is contrived on the fly, and if the accelerating pace of the movie were stopped for a second, and somebody were to ask what was really going on, it might all collapse. Russell’s movies work off momentum, pent-up emotion, the euphoria of realization and the frustration of no one listening or caring to those realizations in the same way. And they’re just as reliant on throwing people into a confined space, giving them the freedom to release their most accusatory and insensitive remarks, and not letting them leave. Russell might draw from the American and French New Waves (writing in an anthology celebrating 40 years of the French film journal Positif, he listed one link of his favourite films (The Graduate, Les quatre cents coups) as “strangely unloving families”), but these scenes owe just as much to theatrical contrivance.
Out of his own work, Joy, at least the house it takes place in, most closely resembles Silver Linings Playbook — people argue instead of eat in the dining room, people retreat into themselves in their bedrooms, and there is the sense no one has ever really moved out of the house since birth. But, no matter the shared cast or aesthetics, that is where the similarities end. Instead of the aggressive, volatile love-dance routine of that movie, Joy is an interior-psychological narrative, an essentially warm movie, one that seems, at times, to be a direct descendent of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Joy, after putting her life on hold for her family, tries to think back to the beginning of her life, what drove her, what made her happy. She tries to imagine a world where she could have what she wants, the space to think for herself, and can’t — at every turn, she is reminded of her family, her mistakes, her difference, the way she allowed that difference to be morphed into similarity by staying within a community.
As in Capra, the darkness of small-town life is given full treatment: the knowing, judging glances, the conversations that keep people in boxes, the fragility of social positioning. And in the same way, Russell pulls back, unable to let that encroaching despair turn into defeatism — though not before coming right to the edge, and peering over. (George Bailey rails against the light in It’s a Wonderful Life, shouting, “Where’s that money, you silly stupid old fool? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison!” Joy gets two out of three.) Lawrence is well-cast (more so than in American Hustle, where she was still the best part of the film), a woman dreading the way time has moved too fast; her family says she has nothing to worry about, they need her, they care about her, but internally that doesn’t square with what she’s living with. Her performance, more than the controlled restraint of The Hunger Games or the charming abandon of previous Russell films, is an unresolved balance, between the loose, say-whatever-comes-to-mind persona Lawrence is known for, and the unbothered, demanding perch of an actor-negotiator.
Increasingly, Russell depends on music bridges and interludes; without them, (and with the release of his unfinished, doomed project Nailed earlier this year) it’s easy to imagine the film simply holding down a single tone, rather than consistently reaching a broad range. Like in the recent work of Xavier Dolan, Russell doesn’t go far for his music selections — this is, for the most part, music the characters in his movie might listen to. The popularity of the songs doesn’t always work — the effectiveness of bookending the film with Cream’s “I Feel Free” is undercut a little by its use in a recent cellphone ad campaign in Canada. But the layering of romantic themes (Prokofiev’s Cinderella, Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, and David Buckley’s for The Good Wife), an orchestra perpetually tuning up, works — music that drives her work, music that would never enter her house normally.
The plot of Joy revolves around the invention and marketing of an easier-to-use mop. Unlike the collective aid in Capra, this movie takes a pre-Dragon’s Den route of searching for benefactors, navigating the business world, and demonstrating a product for sellers, trying to catch up to the capitalist success stories the news loves to share. But the mop doesn’t really matter — it could have been anything, the movie suggests, if Joy was just left alone. But she isn’t, so she invents something from her dissatisfaction, her daily life. As a re-invention story, while there are probably some parallels to be made with other characters in Russell’s films, the most captivating connection here is between Lawrence and Diane Ladd, who plays her grandmother, angelically narrating the movie. With Ladd, the picture almost earns its hubristic dedication (“Inspired by the true stories of daring women”), creating a link between the work she does onscreen and the experience it suggests. Forty years ago, she was a sounding board for Ellen Burstyn’s ideas in the great Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — Joy is, like Russell’s recent work, also a period piece, but, unlike American Hustle, it doesn’t come off as a composite of past works. It uses that familiarity, and works it into something that reaches for originality.