When it comes to David O. Russell, I'll admit I'm biased, or at least heavily influenced by past performance. I've enjoyed and admired every one of the director's movies since his unofficial comeback began a little more than five years ago.
I loved "The Fighter," its off-center view of a Massachusetts matriarch, its skillful upending of boxing-movie conventions. I marveled at "Silver Linings Playbook" and its willingness to peer under darker covers at societal underdogs -- a Russell archetype -- even as it delivered an object lesson in crowd-pleasing resolution. I was continually impressed by "American Hustle" -- its wry view on the '70s, its ability to use a period crime picture as a camouflage suit for a classic love story.
And, yes, I was enthralled by "Joy."
Wait, "Joy"? That Jennifer Lawrence movie we forgot about a week after Christmas and only sort of remember now because Lawrence will be appearing at the Oscars for it later this month?
Yep, that one. It feels worth bringing up one last time as it makes its exit from theaters (in just a few hundred last weekend and fading fast).
The film is, of course, loosely inspired by Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop, and her battle to bring it into the world. Critics were not enamored -- a lot less enamored than some recent Russell movies (60% on Rotten Tomatoes, the same as "Sisters" and 10 points less than the last "Hunger Games" movie, which seems a little harsh, but no matter).
Among their critiques was a lack of cohesion, particularly in the movie's second half, as the film becomes a bit less of a character study and more of a business thriller-procedural. But I was struck by how Russell had taken what seemed like a story we'd seen or heard dozens of times -- an underdog finds her way in the world thanks to pluck and ingenuity -- and turned it on its head.
Russell peopled the movie, as he has so many others, with characters that simultaneously exist only in Russell-land and are deeply identifiable -- that parent who presses an issue too far, the partner whose interest in your well-being is inextricable from his or her own interest. Then he used them to buttress his main character and throw her own universe and conflict into colorful relief.
That was my feeling, anyway. It wasn't everyone's. It certainly wasn't everyone's among the moviegoing public.
Most of America agreed on the first three films of his latest career phase. Or, at least, they felt strongly enough about the work that they came out to see it. Each of those films -- "The Fighter," "Silver Linings" and "Hustle" -- took in no less than $100 million when adjusting for inflation, a remarkable feat when you consider: a) all of Russell's four movies in his career before "The Fighter" had missed that threshold, some by a lot, and b) so many Russell characters are messy and not what we've been told a mainstream audience wants to see in its multiplex heroes
But audiences came out in great numbers -- really great numbers, in the case of "American Hustle."
All of that should have set up "Joy" for a big win. Yet as the movie prepares to leave theaters, it has reached just $56 million, a fraction of the other films.
I talked to Russell recently for a separate story, and I couldn't help wondering what he thinks the reason for this cooler reaction is, both critically and commercially.
He said he saw the critiques informed in part by that shift in the movie's second half.
"Some people feel that it changed rhythms," he said. "But to me it's OK for movies to change rhythms, as long as they're honest about it. In the first part the rhythms of this film were defined by the people around Joy, and it isn't until the second half where she says 'I'm going to define myself differently.' It wasn't until the second half that she became a mature form of herself."
He also saw the negative response as partly a function of subject matter.
"When I made 'American Hustle,'" he said, "my editors and I looked at each other and just kind of went, 'We can't believe we made this film.' It was just the craziness of the characters; it had something more inherently flashy. And a lot of people do go to the movies for those reasons.
"This is not the most glamorous world," he continued. "What Joy is doing is not criminal; it's not crazy. She's just trying to be a tough person protecting her business. Those things may not be as flashy, may not be as crazy as some other characters. It's easy to dismiss people like that. But to me it's just as interesting."
Russell may be on to something there. The setting of this film does not have the backdrop of his other movies -- boxing, ballroom dancing, con men and/or politics -- though that, in a way, gives it an even higher degree of difficulty. Of course, that's not the only criticism. "Joy" has been maligned for wearing its sentiment on its sleeve, particularly in a triumphant final chapter. Yet it's doing so less, it seemed to me, in a manipulative spirit but as a movie acutely aware of so many sentimental efforts that preceded it, a movie willing to veer closer to them but ultimately avoiding the form's excesses.
Some have also said "Joy" manipulates by making some of the people around the heroine cardboard figures, outlandishly unsupportive in a way meant to heighten the obstacles or the eventual triumph over them. And, yes, the film exaggerates some foibles. But Russell's M.O. has never been to say this is exactly how real life operates. His work, so centered on the underdog, often exists in the realm of parable. Supporting characters, especially antagonists, are meant to be drawn this way, for the simple reason that that's how the main character sees them.
When Robert De Niro as Joy's father or Elisabeth Rohm as her sister are throwing up roadblocks in "Joy," the question, it seems to me, is not whether someone would actually do that, or do that in such a way -- it's how would someone else react in a world where this happened. Life really wants to push you down, Russell is saying here, as he has so often before, and the question is how you bounce off and through that. "Joy" is not meant to be a piece of exhaustive psychological realism. It's meant to capture a larger feeling. It's meant, at bottom, to be a fairy tale.
And though this is a separate matter from a movie's quality, it's worth noting that at a moment when the question of rich female characters is as salient as ever, Russell has offered up a (sadly) unique brand of female-led movie. "Joy" is neither a piece of indie-cinema miserablism about addiction or the like, on the one hand, nor a studio romantic comedy on the other.
I know there's a feminist critique of the film -- Alison Willmore of Buzzfeed articulates it well here -- that what looks like empowerment is pandering. And I can certainly hear the argument. But to me, at least, the movie never felt like it was condescending, not to women or the audience. It was just telling an inspirational story rooted in gender, acknowledging that someone who had been cast aside has found a way to overcome it. If it didn't capture the universality of discrimination, it was a film that was OK with that. "Joy" simply wanted to describe how this person, like so many who overcome prejudice or underestimation every day, found her own private way of surviving it.
Turning to the question of his work, Russell said he saw some of the larger backlash as not just a function of the film but as a career matter.
"I'm reminded a little of Bogdanovich after he made three very strong pictures, and people were ready to dismantle him," he said. "I think that's part of the process of success. That's part of what we see in the movie -- success isn't something that keeps going easily. It becomes complicated and challenging, and people can say anything they want and they eventually want to take a shot at you. It doesn't bother me. That's what makes you a pro. Just like any of these characters, you just keep going."
The movie, in other words, is preemptively grappling with an adverse reaction to itself, or at least Russell's fears of same.
Russell is a peculiar chronicler of the American outsider; his heroes are not self-consciously quirky a la Wes Anderson nor dramatically down and out as in so many independent dramas. The person is just a little off-kilter, an inch or two closer to the margins. That's how many of us feel some of the time. That's how movie characters operate some of the time. And it's where their creators end up some of the time.