Joy: Jennifer Lawrence makes Oscar contender work

You’re sitting at home on a Tuesday evening relaxing in front of the television and the trailer for “Joy” – one of seven new releases to come out over the Christmas holidays – came on.

You probably had little to no idea what the hell you just saw.

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It’s a film with Jennifer Lawrence and she’s shooting a shotgun and for some reason there’s Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper and why in the world should anyone spend their hard earned dollars watching that movie.

Ignore the trailers. The marketing execs trying to cut together clips of “Joy” haven’t gotten a movie they were trying to promote this wrong since Sony Pictures failed Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” ironically enough starring Cooper.

Lawrence’s star power alone drove a majority of this weekend’s box office traffic to see the Oscar-contending drama, which should slot in comfortably behind the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg two hander “Daddy’s Home” and a little movie called “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” But it’s not enough.

While not quite on the same cinematic level as his last three acting masterpieces – “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” – director David O. Russell molds a largely successful drama akin to “August: Osage County” with more gusto and business acumen.

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Lawrence is a near lock for a third consecutive Academy Award nomination under Russell’s direction as Joy Mangano, a smart and resilient woman who overcomes familial burdens and economic hardships while inventing and selling a lightweight, self-wringing mop on the famed QVC television station. Equal parts Marlon Brando and Bette Davis, she attacks scenes with a quiet efficiency, especially during her business negotiation in the film’s final moments.

“Joy” serves as a perfectly balanced antithesis to the much more widely heralded “Steve Jobs,” which elevates the Apple founder to near mythical antihero heights while the film’s ensemble cast circle around Michael Fassbender as Jobs like planets revolving around the sun.

Conversely, Lawrence has to pristinely float from chaotic familial relationship to chaotic familial relationship while simultaneously building a nuanced character moving out of the shadows behind much more flamboyant personalities.

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Russell tailor-made the part specifically for Lawrence, who is proving to be his cinematic muse, all the while rightfully knowing that no other actress could have been half as successful. Though some of the scenes aren’t particularly the most well-written by Russell’s lofty standards, Lawrence elevates the material to a higher level and prevents “Joy” from becoming too grandiose or sardonic.

Her performance serves as a reminder that Lawrence can be one of the top two or three actresses working in Hollywood today, once she finally rids herself of pocket-lining franchise work.

Cooper, criminally underutilized in “Joy,” gives an effective performance as QVC head honcho Neil Walker, continuing the effortless repartee he shared with Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook.” These are two actors who constantly improve each other’s work every second they’re on screen together and viewers are ultimately better off when the duo are paired in scenes together.

The refreshing thing about “Joy,” especially when it comes to the dynamic between Lawrence and Cooper (or Lawrence and Edgar Ramirez, who plays Joy’s ex-husband), is that romance is so unessential to the story. Very few major studio films with a female lead so brazenly abandon traditional cinematic paradigms to the extent that “Joy” does.

Mixed in all the numerous time jumps in “Joy” – the film hops from when Joy is a young girl through adulthood and into old age albeit briefly – is a constant reassurance that Joy will be a powerful matriarch who doesn’t need a prince to ensure her family’s safety and happiness.

She’s guided by her grandmother played by a charming Diane Ladd, receives her financial backing from an Italian widow her father is dating played by Isabella Rossellini and goes toe to toe with her half-sister and full nemesis played by an especially game Elisabeth Rohm.

Women dominate Joy from start to finish while the men are there to advance the plot and provide a change of pace, quite the cinematic role reversal. “Joy” is by far one of 2015’s most socially progressive films in that regard. Even the actors in the TV soap opera Joy’s mother watches throughout the film are female-dominant led by none other than Susan Lucci.

Robert De Niro leads the film’s veteran ensemble cast, returning to his usual form as Joy’s brash, yet lovingly charming father. The role is perfect for De Niro, who naturally dominates the screen with his presence, even when he’s not the one speaking.

Visually, “Joy” has moments of brilliance, especially during close-ups of Lawrence. The film’s ending shot – a tight look at Joy walking down the street – will likely go down as one of the year’s most memorable moments if captured in a single frame. Russell captures his muse in such a way that Lawrence feels like a dead ringer for a starlet from Hollywood’s golden era.

“Joy” will likely confound viewers structurally, as Russell throws linear timelines out the window, pushing viewers forward and back in time, from coast to coast and in and out of a television screen like a pinball. Moviegoers may struggle with the pinball-esque controlled chaos of “Joy,” especially in the film’s first act.

Once you get oriented in Russell’s mind and entranced by the world of “Joy,” film fanatics will finally get the small budget feel, big budget backed blockbuster drama everyone hoped “August: Osage County” would be but wasn’t.

With Lawrence a shoo-in to receive a third Oscar nomination, her performance alone is worth the price of admission, but “Joy” should leave viewers more than satisfied thanks to its talented ensemble cast and a director in Russell who puts the acting first.

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