D.W. Griffith famously cherished the rare moments when movies captured “the beauty of moving wind in the trees.” By all available evidence, David O. Russell is thrilled by the beauty of shouting through ramshackle blue-collar homes. The houses in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook tended to served only as backdrop, but in Joy the family home is upgraded to featured player, as an ingeniously multipurpose image of the life of the heroine’s mind.
Adorned with thin plank doors, beset by enervating plumbing problems, its every square inch spoken for by relations of increasingly tenuous connection, Joy Mangano’s (Jennifer Lawrence) Long Island abode serves not as a static symbol, but as a living operator, even at times a Greek chorus. In one moment it doubles the crushing weight of Joy’s no-account family members and friends, and in another it ministers to her alone as foundation, respite, and the figurehead of her destiny. Call it The Malignant Ambersons.
Emerging from a cough syrup-aided slumber, the eternally put-upon Joy arrives calmly at an epiphany, orders her ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez) to move out of the basement, and sets to work designing and building a prototype for what would eventually become the bestselling Miracle Mop, the match that would ignite a lifetime of retail success—but not without a series of bitter, drawn-out struggles. Over the course of the film, Joy battles everyone in and around her aspirational venture, and runs the risk of blasting her financial situation back to the Stone Age.
Conceptually, Joy forces an uneasy marriage between personal and, for lack of a better term, commercial moviemaking: In crude terms, Joy must defeat an onslaught of Russell grotesques, among them her soap opera-loving mother (Virginia Madsen) and nettlesome half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm), to outsmart and outpace the setbacks she suffers almost immediately after every hard-won success. The wine’s not new, but the bottle is artisanal and weird.
Inside the black box that was the six-year gap between the eccentric I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter, Russell underwent something akin to a metamorphosis, emerging a writer-director of increased work tempo and superhero-proportioned Oscar ambitions. More than the oft-cited accusation that Oscar-friendly Russell is no bargain for losing the genius/enfant terrible Russell of Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings fame, the more interesting struggle is in locating the latter in the former. Accolade-friendly or not, the director of Joy doesn’t sell the Edna Ferber-esque heights and depths of Joy’s journey without putting the enterprise through the paces of his impatient, liquid camerawork and feisty sense of humor.
The conflict between the different forms that make up the film’s construction proves more fascinating than the trite conflicts that plot the peak-valley-peak course of the story. Andrew Sarris once said of Billy Wilder that the writer-director was too cynical to believe his own cynicism. With Russell, post-2010, there’s a similar disconnect between his smart-aleck, prankster personality and the fairy-tale sense of wonderment he insists on spinning. Arguably, one should cancel out the other, but they coexist, restlessly, sparring constantly. At times, he’ll redline the fantasy levels, dampened as they often are by his Clear Channel taste in pop music, allowing his protagonist a reprieve, if not victory, with a kind of curlicue motion—most iconically the breakneck whip-retreat of the camera that closes Silver Linings Playbook.
There’s a fascinating moment late in Joy when the title character, seemingly in a trance from an unlikely but long-deserved conquest, takes in a Christmas display window in a Texas town’s shopping district. Unseasonal snowflakes begin to swirl around her, and Russell leads the moment on as a metaphor for dream fulfillment for an extra beat before swinging the camera skyward to reveal that the faux snow is the work of a mechanical apparatus rather than his own filmmaking fancy. It’s a telling moment. In it, Russell proposes that there may be no real barrier between the caustic worldview he wears and the sense of childlike wonder he sells. It’s probably an argument that’s better left unsettled for the sake of enjoying his art. Regardless, one’s mileage with Joy may vary depending on whether one allows that the apparatus is the source of wonderment, rather than the fake snow.