Film Review: Joy (dir by David O. Russell)


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Hi there and welcome to 2016!

Today was the first day of a new year so, of course, I had to go down to the Alamo Drafthouse and see a movie.  What was the title of the first movie that I saw in a theater in 2016?

Joy.

Despite the fact that Joy has gotten some seriously mixed reviews, I had high hopes when I sat down in the Alamo.  After all, Joy represents the third collaboration between director David O. Russell and one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Lawrence.  (Their previous collaborations — Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle — happen to be two of my favorite films of the past 5 years.)  Add to that, Joy has been advertised as being a tribute to a real-life, strong-willed woman and I figured that, at the very least, it would provide a nice alternative to the testosterone-crazed movies that I’ve recently sat through.  And finally, Joy had a great trailer!

Sure, there were a few less than positive signs about Joy.  As I mentioned before, the majority of the reviews had been mixed and the word of mouth was even worse.  (My friend, the sportswriter Jason Tarwater, used one word to describe the film to me: “Meh.”)  But what truly worried me was that Sasha Stone of AwardsDaily absolutely raved about the film on her site and that’s usually a bad sign.  Let’s not forget that this is the same Sasha Stone who claimed that Maps To The Stars was one of the best films ever made about Hollywood.

And, to be honest, I had much the same reaction to Joy that I had to Map To The Stars.  I really wanted to love Joy and, occasionally, there would be a clever bit of dialogue or an unexpected directorial choice and I would briefly perk up in my seat and think to myself, “Okay, this is the film that I wanted to see!”  But, for the most part, Joy is a disappointment.  It’s not so much that it’s bad as it’s just not particularly great.  For the most part, it’s just meh.

But let’s talk about what worked.  Overall, this may be one of Jennifer Lawrence’s lesser films but she gives a great performance, one that reminds us that she truly is one of the best actresses working today.  I’ve read some complaints that Lawrence was too young for the title role and, to be absolutely honest, she probably is.  She looks like she could easily go undercover at a high school and help Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum bust drug dealers.  But, at the same time, she projects the inner weariness of a survivor.  For lack of a better term, she has an old soul and it comes across in her films.

In Joy, she plays Joy Mangano, a divorced mother of two who lives in upstate New York.  Her mother (Virginia Madsen) lives with Joy and spends all of her time watching soap operas.  Joy ex-husband, a lounge singer named Tony (Edgar Ramirez), lives in the basement.  Meanwhile, her grandmother (Diane Ladd, who narrates the film) is always hovering in the background, offering Joy encouragement and optimism.  At the start of the film, Joy’s cantankerous father (Robert De Niro) has also moved into the house.  Joy, who was the valedictorian of her high school, has got a demeaning job working as a flight booker at the airport.

(“What’s your name?” one rude customer asks, “Joy?  You don’t seem very joyful to me…”)

How stressful is Joy’s life?  It’s so stressful that she has a reoccurring nightmare in which she’s trapped in her mother’s favorite soap opera and Susan Lucci (cleverly playing herself) tells her that she should just give up.

However, as difficult as life may get, Joy refuses to take Susan Lucci’s advise.  She invents a miraculous mop known as the miracle mop and eventually becomes a highly successful businesswoman.  Along the way, she makes her television debut on QVC and becomes a minor celebrity herself…

The film’s best scenes are the ones that deal with Joy and QVC.  These scenes, in which the inexperienced Joy proves herself to be a natural saleswoman, are the best in the film.  These scenes are filled with the spark that I was hoping would be present throughout the entire film.  Of course, it helps that these scenes also feature Bradley Cooper as a sympathetic television executive.  This is the third time that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have acted opposite each other and there’s an immediate chemistry between them.  In this case, it’s not a romantic chemistry (and one of the things that I did appreciate about Joy was that it didn’t try to force a predictable romance on the title character).  Instead, it’s the type of mutual respect that you rarely see between male and female characters in the movies.  It’s a lot of fun to watch, precisely because it is so real and unexpected.

But sadly, the QVC scenes only make up a relatively small part of Joy.  The rest of the film is something of a mess, with David O. Russell never settling on a consistent tone.  At times, Joy feels like a disorganized collection of themes from his previous films.  Just as in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, we get the quirky and dysfunctional family.  Just as in American Hustle, we get the period detail, the Scorsese-lite soundtrack, and the moments of cynical humor.  There’s a lot going on in Joy and, at time, it doesn’t seem that Russell really knows what to do with all the theme and characters that he’s mixed into the movie.  I found myself wondering if he truly understood the story that he was trying to tell.

Finally, at the end of the film, Joy visits a business rival in Dallas, Texas.  Let’s just say that the film’s version of Dallas looks nothing like the city that I know.  (The minute that the scene cut from her ex-husband discovering that Joy had left to a close-up of a Bar-B-Q sign, I let out an exasperated, “Oh, come on!”)  I suppose I should be happy that Russell didn’t have huge mountains in the background of the Dallas scenes but seriously, would it have killed anyone to do a little research or maybe hop on a plane and spend a day or two filming on location?

(After all, if Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson decided to set a movie in David O. Russell’s home state of Massachusetts, I doubt that they would film the Boston scenes in El Paso….)

Joy features great work from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and it tells a story that has the potential to be very empowering.  But, when it comes to the overall film … meh.

Sorry Jen

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #123: The Cobbler (dir by Thomas McCarthy)


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Oh, Cobbler, Cobbler — what a frustrating film you are!

There was a time when everyone was excited about seeing The Cobbler.  It was originally scheduled to come out in 2014 and, along with Men, Women, & Children, it was supposed to be part of the dramatic recreation of Adam Sandler.

After all, one of the main reason why critics like me hate to see Adam Sandler devoting his time to stuff like That’s My Boy is because, in the past, Sandler has actually proven himself to be a surprisingly good and likable dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, dramatic Sandler films never seem to make much money and, as a result, Sandler goes back to making films where he, David Spade, and Chris Rock play former high school classmates.  If only one Sandler dramedy could be a success, we tell ourselves, then he’d never feel the need to make another movie like Jack and Jill

(And yes, I realize that’s probably wishful thinking on our part.  Even if Adam Sandler somehow won an Oscar, I get the feeling he’d follow the win by starting work on Grown Ups 3….)

The Cobbler promised that not only would Sandler be playing a more low-key role than usual but he would also be directed by Thomas McCarthy, who previously directed the excellent The Visitor and Win Win.  Based on his previous films, McCarthy seemed to be the perfect filmmaker to give Adam Sandler some credibility.

And, let’s not forget, that not only would Sandler be working with Thomas McCarthy but Men, Women, & Children was being directed by Jason Reitman!  At one point, it truly appeared that 2014 was going to be the year that we saw the rebirth of Adam Sandler.

And then Men, Women, & Children came out and was a disaster, despite the fact that Sandler got fairly good reviews.  Meanwhile, rumors started to swirl that just maybe The Cobbler wasn’t as good as McCarthy’s previous film.  When The Cobbler‘s release date was pushed back to 2015 … well, we all knew what that meant.

Anyway, The Cobbler was released in a few theaters earlier this year and on VOD.  It’s now available on Netflix.  I watched it last week and it’s really not as bad as I expected it to be.  Of course, that’s not to say that it’s particularly good either.  It’s not terrible but it is disappointing.  Considering the director and the supporting cast (Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Dan Stevens, and Melonie Diaz, who was way too good in Fruitvale Station for you not to regret how this film totally wastes her), The Cobbler should at least be interesting.  Instead, it’s just kind of bland.

However, Adam Sandler does give a pretty good performance.  In this film, he plays Max, a shy and emotionally withdrawn cobbler.  He comes from a long line of cobblers and he inherited his store from his father (Dustin Hoffman).  Years before the film begins, Max’s father mysteriously vanished.  Now, Max spends his time going to and from work and taking care of his dementia-stricken mother.  His only friend is Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), the paternal barber who works next door.

In the basement of Max’s shop, there’s an old stitching machine.  About 30 minutes into the film, Max discovers that if be puts on a pair of shoes that have been repaired using the machine, he can physically transform into whoever owns the shoes.  After experimenting with being different people, Max eventually puts on his father’s shoes.  Transforming into his father, he has dinner with his mother.

The next morning, his mother dies.  Max cannot even afford to buy her a good headstone.  However, a local criminal (played by Method Man) has dropped off his shoes to be repaired.  Perhaps, by wearing the criminal’s shoes, Max can come up with the money…

I’m probably making The Cobbler sound a lot more interesting than it actually is.  And seriously, it sounds like it should a really good and thought-provoking movie.  Unfortunately, McCarthy awkwardly tries to combine the broadly comedic elements (i.e., Sandler transforming into a variety of eccentric characters) with the dramatic (which includes not only Max’s anger at his father but a few murders as well).  The film never finds a consistent tone and, as such, it remains an interesting idea in search of a stronger narrative.  Watching the film as it wanders from scene to scene, it’s impossible not to mourn all of the missed opportunities.

But, as I said, Adam Sandler does well.  Hiding his face behind a beard and only occasionally offering up a sad smile, Sandler gives a low-key performance that is full of very genuine melancholy.  In this film, he proves that he can act when he wants to.  You just wish that the rest of The Cobbler lived up to his performance.

Unfortunately, as far as the box office is concerned, The Cobbler is the least financially successful film that Sandler has ever appeared in.  This means that plans for Grown-Ups 3 are probably already underway…

(For those keeping track of the progress of Embracing The Melodrama Part II, we are now 123 reviews down with 3 to go.)