Joy: An Auteur Tour/Detour

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When Bradley Cooper, standing in for David O. Russell, compares himself to movie mogul David O. Selznick then directs a mop commercial on QVC like he’s conducting a symphony orchestra, it’s the most Russell thing that ever evered. As an impression of how Russell makes films, this kind of dumb, sort of beautiful scene–in which Cooper demonstrates manic passion, sincerity, and focus while stage whispering instructions like “go to the syrup!” or “give us the hands!”–is bemusing in how candid it is.

For better and for worse, Joy is an auteurist detour par excellence. It compares mop manufacturing to industrial filmmaking, and allegorically defends self-expression as the route to self-actualization by showing Jennifer Lawrence deliver ecstatic monologues about three hundred feet of continuous cotton loop. Like Neil Walker (Cooper), Joy (Lawrence) represents the director as much as she does the “daring women” the picture is dedicated to; Russell, who makes personal films no matter the source material (and threw out a finished screenplay to write his own in this case, which is why he shares a story credit with Bridesmaids scenarist Annie Mumolo), models aspects of Joy on his father, a salesman, and clearly–as a deft handler of his own personal brand–identifies with the marketing and commerce aspects of the story (in a way that some may find gauche).

Members of Russell’s stock company return (Cooper, Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Röhm, and Paul Herman in a bearded cameo), and themes from previous films are reiterated:

Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) in American Hustle: You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.

Rudy (De Niro): I have to fall in love or I’m not interested.

…or verbalized:

Neil Walker (Cooper): I take it very seriously. I see it as a privilege that we have to go into people’s homes, and I despise anybody who’s cynical about that.

Backlighting is prevalent, especially in two-shot, and silhouettes are everywhere:

A transition from backlighting to silhouette is an in-camera cut between the generations:

For interiors, Russell draws influence from Andrew Wyeth, doubling down on the ugly beige beauty he’s been working in since Silver Linings Playbook, but as Joy gets stronger, the color palette expands and she emerges from the shadows.

Images evoke classicism and the paintings of Edward Hopper:

In QVC’s rotating stage, Russell–a director who prides himself on lighting for 360 degrees, and often has actors look almost directly into the camera–finds his ideal set-piece, suggesting visual affinities with Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, and Wes Anderson. In Russell’s films, the world spins and spins.

The indefinite period setting insists this is a timeless fable, a post-Prince Charming Cinderella story, and just like in Cinderella, there’s a wicked step-family who seem to exist merely to thwart the protagonist. Their one-dimensionality is a flaw the picture struggles to overcome. Cameras are pushed in or spun with energy but not always enough motivation. The hard tracking shot that is arguably Russell’s signature move is employed once, in an airport ticket line, to intensify the pace and convey style, not emotion. Melodrama is signified. What used to be an interest in hands is now an idée fixe.

Jennifer Lawrence carries the film. Her ongoing collaboration with Russell, in which he not only gives her star parts in medium-to-big-budget movies on an almost yearly basis but increasingly seems to write the roles expressly for her, is as special as it is unique in contemporary Hollywood. Lawrence pulls it off, this weird matriarchal Michael Corleone role; cast against her strengths in a part that calls for restraint, not brass, she imbues Joy–who spends most of the movie deflecting insults, catching grief, and managing chaos–with quiet dignity and stubborn determination. She walks at the camera like a woman who is put upon but empowered (“I can walk down the street, there’s no one there”), and embodies the words of her grandmother, who told her, “You were born to be the unanxious presence in the room.”