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Ode to Joy'

December 29, 2015
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Russell's latest features exceptional ensemble

Over the past five years, writer/director David O. Russell has been one of the more consistent filmmakers in Hollywood. With 2010's 'The Fighter,' 2012's 'Silver Linings Playbook,' 2013's 'American Hustle' and his latest, 'Joy,' we've been trained to expect a few things.

Russell's films are inevitably about the emotional realities of relationships, be they familial, romantic or some combination therein. They are efficiently shot and extremely well-written. They are also actors' playgrounds, rife with roles that offer something more than the usual fare.

That's why performers keep coming back to Russell he gives you parts that are well worth playing. Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro a host of Russell's regulars are here. And you can see why.

It's more of the same in 'Joy,' inspired by the real-life story of entrepreneur/inventor Joy Mangano's early struggles both personally and professionally involved in her attempt to create and sell the Miracle Mop.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence, 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2') is a down-on-her-luck woman struggling to make ends meet with her dysfunctional family. She's a single mother with two kids although her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez, 'Point Break') still lives in the basement. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen, 'Lost Boy') lives with her, but stays holed up in her room constantly watching soap operas. Her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd, 'I Dream Too Much') lives there too.

But when her philandering father Rudy (Robert De Niro, 'The Intern') moves back into the house to the basement, to share space and butt heads with Tony things start to get overwhelming.

Through it all, Joy believes she is destined for something bigger. So when she is struck by inspiration an idea for vastly improving the simple mop she decides that this is her time. So with some financial assistance from her father's new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rosselini, 'Closet Monster') and despite the vehement protests of her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm, 'Rivers 9'), Joy tries to make a go of it.

As you might imagine, it isn't as easy as she thought.

After a number of false starts, salvation seemingly appears in the form of Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, 'Burnt'), the head of a fledgling home-shopping cable venture called QVC. But even then, success isn't assured, leaving Joy to determine just how far she will go and how much she will sacrifice to make her dreams of success come true.

'Joy' is more inspired by Mangano's story than strictly based upon it no surprise considering Russell's tendency to take true stories and fill in the gaps as he sees fit. However, this is the first time he has taken that approach to a film that could be more or less considered a biopic and it doesn't quite click the way he probably hoped; it's definitely a better dramatic narrative than it is an accurate biography. And that's OK.

In terms of Russell's resume, 'Joy' doesn't measure up to the heights he reached with his previous work. But failing to reach a particularly lofty standard doesn't necessarily result in a bad movie. Quite the contrary, actually there's a lot to like about 'Joy.'

As per usual with Russell, the conversation starts with the performances. Lawrence who is essentially Russell's muse at this point once again puts her immense talents on display. She's almost always excellent, but she seems to shine brightest with Russell. Her take on Joy is complex and subtle and heartbreaking, with a liberal dose of self-effacing humor to boot. 'Joy' is about Joy; it requires the sort of foundational performance from its lead that only a handful of actresses could hope to give. Lawrence is one such actress.

The supporting cast soars as well. Russell once again helps De Niro show us flashes of the once-in-a-generation performer we remember so fondly. Madsen is beautifully broken, while Ramirez almost manages to counteract the awfulness of his turn in 'Point Break.' Rosselini, Rohm, Ladd all of them are great. And of course, Bradley Cooper; if Lawrence is Russell's muse, Cooper is his spirit animal. His is a wonderfully understated performance.

Russell has built 'Joy' on a foundation of relationship dynamics it's not necessarily a story about what happens so much as it is about to whom it happens. But while it gets close to reaching the heights to which it aspires, it never manages to arrive.

The film will receive awards season accolades and deservedly so. As I said, there's a lot to like. However, the film has its share of issues, as well. In short, 'Joy' is a very good movie that never becomes as great as it could have been.

[4.5 out of 5]

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