Joy (2015)

I wouldn’t call Joy the best collaboration between writer/director David O. Russell and actress Jennifer Lawrence; I don’t even know if it’s their second-best. Not to blame them –  it’s no easy feat to follow up the superb Silver Linings Playbook and the pretty-good American Hustle.

Joy is the real-life story of a struggling divorced mother who’s put her dreams on hold. By chance, she has an epiphany on what becomes her big invention, the Miracle Mop, and plunges headfirst into the drama of manufacturing, advertising, and eventually her career legacy – all while balancing her dysfunctional family.

As it tackles such a breadth of topics, Joy as a whole feels uneven. It jumps around, and doesn’t feel quite focused – as if it were a lengthy novel being adapted for film, and the screenwriters couldn’t decide what source material to cut. Of course, as this was based on real-life events, there already was a narrative to chip away from.

In terms of tone, however, its lumpiness makes Joy the more endearing. Real life doesn’t start and end with the work day, and Russell’s integration of both the career and family worlds provide a broader (if unfocused) perspective of all the elements taking a toll on this young woman. Her family feels like a soap opera, running in parallel with the lousy daytime drama her mother watches on TV all day.

Her career, on the other hand, often pivots from nightmare to glorious dream. In a scene that reminded me of American Hustle at its best, QVC exec Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) shows Joy around their sets and what their sales flow is like. It’s the movie’s most sensual moment, as he whispers excitedly through each step of the operation and the climax of a successful sales run.

On the other end of the spectrum, most of the film’s drama comes from her business setbacks: struggling to get investment, not selling product, legal battles with patents and contracts. All the action seems to culminate into one core said conflict, but once it’s resolved the film’s tone, highlighted by cheery music and gliding camera motions, indicates that now all is well. The voice-over narration even points out additional troubles that arise, both in her career and in the family unit, but the bizarrely too-good-to-be-true feel of the finale apparently overrides that.

Should we take her later problems for granted? Was this last one we witnessed “it,” and the rest of them aren’t so bad? Given the incredibly spotty career track she’s had, it’s hard to buy that the story’s over; emotionally, we may have wrapped things up but certainly not on a narrative level.

American Hustle (2013)

Unlike its predecessor Silver Linings PlaybookAmerican Hustle is a slow-cooking picture. It takes a long time to get going, and doesn’t really explain where we’re going, but once we start rolling it becomes a cinematic dream.

The exposition, weirdly, is the film at some of its clunkiest. Maybe it’s the gradual, deliberate pacing or the oddly deafening silence (we don’t get the stellar soundtrack til about halfway through), but something about it feels uninvolving. The con scheme set up by Irving and Sydney (later Edith) doesn’t really make sense, and this disconnect makes it hard to stay interested and engaged with what’s going down.

The intervention of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, played to perfection by Bradley Cooper (who, in just two films, has become one of my favorite contemporary actors), is the first great curveball thrown at the lead duo. They get caught for their scheme and, in a similarly selfish fashion, he bets the odds in his favor and pushes them to topple greater and greater idols, not for Justice but for his own reputation.

The film is often patchy, alternating between sequences of nap-worthy doldrums and truly fantastic filmmaking. My favorite moments are the soundtrack-heavy ones, such as the disco nightclub scene (one of the best I’ve ever seen) and the montage of arrests at the film’s climax. It’s extraordinary how the glorious 70s soundtrack really raises the impact from watching a dime-a-dozen crime caper to this sublime, awe-inspiring cinematic experience. It’s like watching the greatest music video that was never made.

Other highlights, it goes without saying, are those featuring the unforgettable Jennifer Lawrence.  She plays the classic, genre-perfect crazy New Jersey wife with a bitchy honesty that never feels over-the-top or flamboyant. She exercises such remarkable control yet leaves a lasting screen presence, it’s hard to remember she is in the movie so little compared to the other main characters.

This film’s greatest strength, though, is in its unique brand of messaging.The Wolf of Wall Street (which I actually prefer) does have some line between right and wrong, even if that line is dotted and hard-to-read, American Hustle has no such line at all. Who of any of these characters, is good? Who is wholly unselfish? I love to see this kind of challenging storytelling, where there is no one really doing the right thing, and everyone is working an angle. Hollywood is often too timid to make a movie as cynical as this, and I applaud David O. Russell for having the guts to.

While it has some narrative issues and clunks along at times, it is an often-entertaining movie that delivers some unforgettable movie moments. Love it or hate it, people will be talking about American Hustle for years to come.

The Hunger Games (2012)

I can’t even begin to say what a great surprise The Hunger Games was. Having recently finished the novel, I had concerns over how the film would adapt the first-person narrative, filled with introspection by the protagonist Katniss Everdeen and flashbacks to earlier in her life. What’s great about the movie: they didn’t try to do that.

Instead, we have a remarkably directed, almost dreamlike flow through the story. The film travels briskly from scene to scene, organically blending in backstory that is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. Rather than filling in the exposition through explanation, as the novel does, we are given the dystopic scenario and the formation of the Hunger Games through news broadcasts of the current year’s Games. None of this feels forced or even too heavily reinforced.

The Hunger Games is the rare film for children / young adults that trusts that the audience is an intelligent and mature one. It counts on the audience to pay attention, as names and details fly by in quick succession. There is very little sweet or sugarcoated about this world, and the movie doesn’t bother to dwell on that. The color palette is filled with bleak greys and blacks, with some very intense sequences of violence (which honestly made me wonder how on earth this movie scraped past an R rating and instead earned a PG-13).

In addition to its disturbing content, this film is also noteworthy for its strong performances. Jennifer Lawrence (as always!) is fantastic as the lead character, and pairs well with her semi-love interest Josh Hutcherson, who also gives a well-restrained and believable performance.

Following in the tradition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Hunger Games is so effective because it feels as authentic as it possibly could. Given the fantastical elements that are embedded in the story, everything else, from the characters’ dialogue, the scenery, and even the wobbly first-person camera work, ring true.

The Hunger Games is an excellent start to what I hope will be a solid film series. It is such an unusual concept for a major studio to pursue, and I welcome its confidence to present a film experience that is disturbing, harsh, and most importantly, believable.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

In a ho-hum year for American cinema, Silver Linings Playbook gleams out of the dull woodwork as a modest film about people with modest ambitions, told at such a painfully honest level that it rises above as the best film of 2012.

The straightforward narrative, of a middle-aged man living with his parents and dealing with bipolar disorder, is enhanced through superb performances and powerful imagery. Bradley Cooper (who I’m usually not a fan of) giving a daring and moving performance as the protagonist, Jennifer Lawrence as the heartbreaking but electrifying heroine, and Robert De Niro as the well-intentioned but pathetic father lead the extraordinary cast in this tragicomedy. All three start off the film recovering from bad places in their lives, and try to build them back up.

Reconstruction proves difficult, emphasized in moments like Cooper’s character moving home, seeing his brother’s picture hanging on the wall while his own has been taken down and is leaning on a table. Lawrence’s character (in one of several memorable monologues) tells of having to constantly give all of herself, only to receive nothing back. While the circumstances the characters face are more extreme than most of us will face in our lifetimes, they hint at positions we have all had to grapple with, in varying degrees of questioning one’s own self-worth.

This film all seems to take place within several square miles. The characters’ dreams are not impossible ones. The biggest ambition seems to be getting a 5 out of 10 at a dance competition, an underwhelming feat that provides one of the film’s biggest laughs. Yet despite the understated attributes in the content of the film, the final product and emotional impact are profound and powerful, giving audiences one of the most rewarding and moving comedies in recent years.