Is Joy David O. Russell’s Best Film Yet?

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Films are a fickle old thing. Not to deem critical opinion redundant, of course, but movies are so subjective, dependant on the tastes and mood the reviewer is in. But it’s part of what makes this all so entertaining, the fact you can leave the cinema with your partner, and both have wildly different views on the same movie; how some scenes can be considered mawkish by one, and ineffably moving by the other.

Which brings us to Joy. A film that popular website The Verge claimed is “easily David O. Russell’s worst film”. I think, however, it’s easily his best yet. Considering the film is barely being touted in any award’s buzz, in spite of the timely release, it would seem such an opinion is the exception as opposed to the rule, particularly when dealing with a filmmaker who is certainly a hit within the Academy, with five Oscar nominations to his name.

His previous two endeavours (we’ve conveniently decided to not include Accidental Love in there – after all, Russell didn’t even attribute his name to the disastrous production) are Silver Lining’s Playbook and American Hustle, and between them accumulated 18 nominations (and one victory – for Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in the former). But this is a more well-rounded, sincere and poignant tale, that draws a better performance out of the aforementioned leading lady than anything we’ve seen previously from their collaborations.

For Lawrence is the leading reason this film triumphs, in what is arguably her best role to date. It may seem somewhat rudimentary for an actor to be able to shake off their star status and appear so normal; to embody the role at hand and to have us invest and believe in their performance, but that’s not always a given. In The Martian Matt Damon is never not Matt Damon, George Clooney is George Clooney in almost every single film he’s made in the last few years, and Brad Pitt’s cameo in 12 Years a Slave provides the one moment of withdrawal, when for a brief moment you’re taken out of the scene, and the movie, because Brad Pitt has just turned up.

But Lawrence ensures that is never a problem, she becomes Joy. She is Joy. This is epitomised when the character has to present her self-wringing mop on the TV network QVC for the very first time. For somebody with such an inherent charisma, and a gracious, palpable screen presence, she is able to seem so daunted, so timid and nervous. It sounds like a task all actors of a certain level should be able to achieve with a relative ease, but to rid yourself of a natural charm is by no means an easy task. Lawrence is a star – and in Joy, she’s just like you or I, and that’s commendable.

She’s not the only performer who shines, as Robert De Niro turns in a (recently rare) strong performance, actually getting his teeth into a substantial, full-bodied role. Dirty Grandpa looking like a depressing return to type, in that regard. But he impresses, as does Bradley Cooper – proving that Russell’s alumni want to work with him, and given the performances the director can draw out of them, you can see why.

The themes are fascinating too, the notion of dormant ability – this idea that life passes us by, that we have dreams and aspirations when young, and then when adulthood arrives we’re too busy to realise that time has passed. It’s a tumultuous age bracket too, as those in their late 20s are caught somewhere in-between their youth and maturity, and it’s been portrayed with a deft execution by Russell – similarly to his ability to make a film that is so much about female empowerment, but with an overriding message that is presented with a minimum contrivance.

So for me, Joy is most definitely worth seeing. Not to say that The Verge are wrong in their opinion of the film, they just differ, which is how it works. But aren’t you interested to see which side you fall into? Which opinion you’ll agree with? If so, there’s only one way to find out, and it involves buying a ticket to see this wondrous piece of cinema.

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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