Screw The Critics #1: Joy

A continuing segment in which Lily, intrepid blogger, goes head to head with the most dastardly of foes: Rotten Tomatoes. Group-think be damned! In this segment, we look at the new David O. Russell movie Joy starring Jennifer Lawrence.  Who will win? Hint: it’s Lily. 


Rotten Tomatoes Consensus:  Joy is anchored by a strong performance from Jennifer Lawrence, although director David O. Russell’s uncertain approach to its fascinating fact-based tale only sporadically sparks bursts of the titular emotion. Score: 58%

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I really, really, love movies. As such, I feel a special attachment to movies that I like and it hurts when a large number of people I respect, like critics, tell me that the movie I like sucks. Critics seem to rally in number against movies they despise, like John Carter of Mars, or fawn over movies they love, like American Hustle. Most times I can agree with consensus, but at times like these, I’m baffled. Joy  is simply put, a great movie. Not mediocre, not good, great. And it deserves a better score than 58 %.

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Strengths of the movie

Jennifer Lawrence: In a post I made a few months ago, I mentioned my confusion concerning J-Law’s career. I had seen Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and while I liked the former, I didn’t understand why she kept collaborating with David O. Russell, especially because he casted her in roles that she was far too young for. Today, I eat my words because Jennifer Lawrence has finally been in a David O. Russel role that I think fits her well. She’s again a young mother, but she can embody the maturity for once without seeming like she’s playing a character. Maybe it’s because she’s aged (she’s 25 now as opposed to being 23 during American Hustle), or maybe it’s because her character in Joy is so much more realistic than the messy, cartoonish overgrown-child bride she played in American Hustle, but in this role she’s more genuine. Jennifer Lawrence has the problem of being such a recognizable person that she can’t disappear as easily into roles, but she doesn’t have that problem in Joy. She’s as equally tough as she is vulnerable, without seeming like an idealist threw some character traits on a page and mixed them together. And of course, J-Law looks more beautiful than ever, with the fresh-faced elegance of a young Jessica Lange. She’s cemented her status as a true siren of the screen.

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The Plot: It’s easy to dismiss the story of a movie when you know what the outcome will be. But even when I knew that Joy would end in success, the plot was engaging enough to keep me hooked. There was never an easy moment for the main character, because even when she started to see the rewards of her enterprise, doors kept closing. One of Joy’s greatest moments is undermined moments later in the movie, and the pattern remains even as the movie draws towards a close. This movie isn’t a glossy reel of triumphs, it’s a collection of brief highs and ultimate lows. And although it ends on a high note, the movie leaves us with the knowledge that great success doesn’t make one’s life perfect, not even for a little while.

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Supporting Characters: Though they’re more fiction than fact, the supporting characters in the movie make Joy  more substantial than reviews seem to imply. On her own, Joy is a working class mother, but with her incredibly burdensome and selfish family, she becomes a hero. Her father Rudy (Robert DeNiro) is the perfect mix of a loving parent and crushingly patronizing detractor. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) spends her days watching soap operas, contributing nothing in the way of help or money to the family. Her sister, Patty (Elizabeth Rohm) feeds her jealousy by poisoning the ears of Joy’s young daughter and sabotaging her business. Even her business partner/ father’s girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) is a vicious snob who wants to bail out at the slightest sign of distress. The only signs of kindness are Joy’s supportive ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) and best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco). The ensemble cast makes Joy’s somewhat generic rag-to-riches story a Herculean struggle against the bonds of family and duty. Russell’s reliance on dysfunctional families bring hits and misses, but the family he creates in Joy is the trope at its best.

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Emotional Impact: The critics keep coming back to the fact that there’s not much joy in Joy. Perhaps they went into the movie thinking it was supposed to be a heartwarming comedy, but it’s not. It’s a depressing, often tear-inducing look at just how hard it is to be successful when everything seems to be working against you. I won’t go into the movie in too much detail, but there were some scenes that were heartbreaking to watch. The movie handles the cruelty of family and fate especially well. Other moments, like the time when Joy first meets her ex-husband, are delightful to watch, and the most famous scene, which by now has inspired many gifs, of J-Law in the “snow” is delicately beautiful. To call it a “dramedy” is to create expectations: the laughs are few and mostly inspired by her odd family.It’s not a joyful movie, and if you go into it expecting to be happy, you’ll be disappointed.  But the movie has small, perfect moments of joy, and that’s enough. Besides, it’s not called Joy because it’s about joy! That’s her name! How can multiple critics make such an obtuse comment?

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Weaknesses of the movie

Narrative Devices: The critics are right when it comes to the movie’s unevenness. David O. Russell is a fan of the cheapest trick in the book: narration. And it’s horribly used here, as the story is ostensibly told by Joy’s grandmother, even when she dies. Joy is determined enough on her own, we don’t need the push of a loving grandmother, and we don’t need her narration either. Additionally, starting the movie in Joy’s childhood came off as cliche. It’s so hard to find good child actors and it’s even harder to make them say lines in a believable manner. The young Joy doesn’t deserve a minute of screen time, and certainly not the five-ten minutes she gets. I would have cut the childhood scenes and especially the opening of the movie, which was just straight footage from a fake soap-opera. Focusing more on Joy’s successes and less on her uninspired childhood would’ve been to the film’s benefit.

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Cut all of it!!!!

The marketing: I wasn’t sure what Joy  was about until I actually saw it. This is unusual in this day and age, where trailers usually over-explain every detail of the film. I  didn’t even know that she had invented a new kind of mop until the very scene where she invents it. While the trailer for Joy makes the film seem like some sort of redemption story, they also make it seem like it’s a family comedy and it’s not in any way. The audience goes into movies with expectations partially fueled by trailers. Advertising a “joyful” movie is bound to make people dislike it when it turns out not to be so joyful.

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Bradley Cooper: This is also a consequence of bad marketing, but from the trailers, it seems like J-Law and Cooper are both in starring roles. He’s barely in the movie and when he is, it’s as an important but generic executive character. He’s charismatic, sure, and he and J-Law have chemistry, but I feel like David O. Russell included him only because of the strange working relationship all three of them have. I guess David O. Russell can’t make a movie without both of those two in it.

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Lily’s  Final Consensus: While Joy has some ill-fitting moments, the entertaining source material and high-caliber performances make it one of David O. Russell’s best films in recent years. It’s certainly better than American Hustle. Score: 89.534 % (because math is dumb)

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