Completely Sold on JOY (2015)

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joy poster

 

When I think of Jennifer Lawrence, I do not think of THE HUNGER GAMES series or the X-MEN movies, but rather, I think of her work in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) and now JOY (2015).  Without a doubt, she is one of the most exciting actresses working today.  JOY belongs to Lawrence.

JOY, the latest film by writer/director David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence in both SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, who created the Miracle Mop and went on to build a very successful business after her appearances on the QVC Home Shopping Network.

I know.  This sounds like a snooze, and many people are poking fun at a story based on the creator of the Miracle Mop, as well as calling writer/director David O. Russell overrated, but I like his style, and I like Jennifer Lawrence.  Combine these two talents with an equally talented ensemble cast, and you’ve got a movie that yes, quite frankly, makes the story of the Miracle Mop compelling and then some!

The film works for two reasons:  Russell’s writing and directorial style, and Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing acting.  These two could probably make a movie about a mop and I’d enjoy it— wait.  That’s what they just did.

JOY is narrated by Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and she introduces us to Joy as a little girl who likes to make things, and Mimi predicts great things for her granddaughter, but when we jump to Joy’s adulthood, we see that these “great things” have thus far eluded her.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) owns her own home, but in this home in addition to her two young children lives her mother  Terry (Virginia Madsen), an agoraphobic who stays in her bed all day and watches soap operas, her grandmother Mimi, and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in the basement.  To make matters more complicated, her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) shows up after having been thrown out by his girlfriend, and Joy takes him in as well, as he gets to share the basement with Tony, and the two men can’t stand each other.

Now, this sounds like a horrible situation and it is, but it’s handled by Russell with lots of wit and humor, like when Rudy’s girlfriend announces to the household and to Terry in particular, “I’m returning him.”

Joy also shares a strange relationship with her ex-husband Tony.  As Mimi explains in her voice-over narration, they’re much better “ex’s” than they were a married couple, and throughout their lives they somehow remain friends.

When Joy comes up with the idea of the Miracle Mop, and gets Rudy and his new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in it, it’s Tony  who directs Joy to a friend of his at QVC Network when sales of the mop go nowhere.  Through Tony’s connection, Joy meets the man who run QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), and although he’s not initially impressed, Joy does not give up and eventually is able to get her product on the network.

But success is not instantaneous, and there’s still a long road ahead for Joy and her dysfunctional family.

JOY is much closer in tone and feel to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK than to AMERICAN HUSTLE, and since SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is probably my favorite David O. Russell movie, it’s why I also like JOY an awful lot as well.  I think I still prefer PLAYBOOK, mostly because in that film in addition to Russell, you had two powerhouse performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  In JOY, you have just the one, as it’s clearly Lawrence’s movie, and it’s her performance which drives it forward.  Cooper is just along fro the ride here.  He’s solid as always, but his role in this one is peripheral at best.

JOY belongs to Jennifer Lawrence.  She’s convincing as Joy throughout, even as she runs the full gamut of emotions from happiness to stress to flat out depression.  She covers it all and makes it look easy.  When she’s wide-eyed and inventive, she’s fun to watch, and when things go wrong as they do more often than not, she tugs at the heart strings, and when she has to be strong and feisty, she goes into full kick-ass mode and makes that work as well.

As I said, Cooper’s role is less impressive here, and for him, it’s almost a throwaway role as the part of QVC head Neil Walker could have been played by anybody.

The rest of the cast is solid and they really help this movie along.

The two stand-outs are Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s ex-husband Tony and Dascha Polanco as Joy’s best friend Jackie.  Ramirez does such a tremendous job as Tony that other than Lawrence, he was my favorite part of this movie.  He plays Tony as the guy who often doesn’t appear to be the smartest guy in the room, but he is the most loyal to his ex-wife Joy on a consistent basis, and so, as things move along, it turns out that more often than not in terms of looking out for Joy and having her best interests in mind, he is the smartest guy in the room.  Ramirez was in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  He played one of the leads, a priest battling demons.  Needless to say, he’s much better here in JOY.

Dascha Polanco plays a similar role as Joy’s best friend Jackie who along with Tony also proves to be her most loyal supporter.  Without Tony or Jackie, Joy’s success may never have happened.  Polanco, known for her work on the TV show ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, is very good here.

The cast also includes Robert De Niro as Joy’s father Rudy.  It’s similar to the role De Niro played in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, where he played Bradley Cooper’s dad.  De Niro gets to enjoy some good moments, some comedic, some dramatic.  Isabella Rossellini also stands out as De Niro’s girlfriend Trudy, although it’s scary how much she reminds me of her mother, Ingrid Bergman.  There were a few lines there in the film which gave me chills as I almost felt I was watching Bergman again.

Trudy and Rudy end up financing the bulk of Joy’s mop project, and as things continually go poorly, the scenes where Trudy and Rudy berate Joy are some of the most painful moments in the film.  Trudy has a way of belittling Joy, and Rudy makes things worse by trying to sound supportive and saying lines like “It’s not Joy’s fault.  It’s my fault for encouraging her to be somebody she’s not.”  Ouch!

Rounding out this painful family trio is Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s half-sister Peggy, who is clearly jealous of her sister.  Peggy sides with Rudy and Trudy and when they gang up against Joy it gets rather ugly, which is why Tony and Jackie’s support for Joy resonates so strongly.

Then there’s Virginia Madsen as Joy’s agoraphobic mom Terry.  She never leaves her bedroom— heck, she hardly leaves her bed— yet her scenes are hilarious.  Furthermore, Russell adds the gimmick of featuring real soap opera stars like Susan Lucci and Maurice Bernard on the goofy soaps which Terry watches all day.  And there’s even a dream sequence where these characters invade Joy’s dreams.

Screen veteran Diane Ladd is also very good as Joy’s grandmother Mimi, and she’s a central figure here since the story is told through her first-person narration.  Ladd is the real life mother of Laura Dern.

And if the showbiz mother/daughter combos of Diane Ladd/Laura Dern and Ingrid Bergman/Isabella Rossellini weren’t enough, there is yet a third connected to this film.  Joan Rivers is a character in the movie since she performed on QVC, and in JOY Rivers is played by her real-life daughter Melissa Rivers.

The other reason I enjoyed JOY so much in addition to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and her supporting cast is the writing and direction of David O. Russell.  While I wasn’t as crazy about his previous film AMERICAN HUSTLE as a lot of other people were, I loved SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER (2010).  Now comes JOY, another film I really, really liked, so I guess I’m becoming a fan.

In JOY, the script is quirky and funny and takes an otherwise so-so story and imbues it with life and humor.  If someone were to ask me if I were interested in learning about the life of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop I’d probably shrug and answer “not really.”  But Russell makes this woman and her story interesting and compelling.

He makes Joy attractive not because of the mop but because she’s the glue which holds her dysfunctional family together.  That’s her real talent.  She’s always there for her family, always, and when they are not always there for her, those moments are painful.  You want to see her succeed because she has worked so hard, not at trying to become rich by selling mops, but at trying to keep her family together and functional.

Russell’s direction is also lively and inspired, from quirky dream sequences mixing soap opera characters with real characters in the story, to uncomfortable family arguments, to the way this film looks.  While not as impressive as the 1970s look from AMERICAN HUSTLE, the cinematography in JOY is still carefully mastered, as the film effectively captures the feel and look of the early 1990s.

JOY is getting mixed reviews, but I absolutely loved it.  With David O. Russell at the helm and penning the script, and Jennifer Lawrence leading a talented cast, I found this one captivating and entertaining throughout.

I was completely sold.

I’ll take one of those mops, thank you very much.

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Thought-Provoking THREE KINGS (1999) Quirky and Intense

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Streaming Video Review:  THREE KINGS (1999)

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Michael Arruda

 

With the upcoming release of George Clooney’s latest movie, TOMORROWLAND, due in theaters on May 22, 2015, I decided to check out an earlier Clooney film that I had missed the first time around.  THREE KINGS (1999), a movie about the first Iraqi war, starring Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and now available on Netflix Streaming, takes place in the waning days of the Persian Gulf War.

When Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) learns that three soldiers have discovered a map leading to massive amounts of gold which Saddam Hussein had taken from the Kuwaitis, he decides to steal it.  He enlists the aid of these three soldiers, Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private First Class Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze).  They set out in secret for the gold, but along the way they witness the Iraqi Republican Guard executing an innocent Iraqi, an action which Major Gates can’t let stand.  He retaliates, and in the process, rescues a large group of Iraqi prisoners, a group that includes women and children.

Suddenly, Gates’ objectives change, as he finds himself responsible for this group of prisoners, and he agrees to help them reach the Iranian border, a quest that puts him and his men up against Saddam Hussein’s forces and his own American army.  And then there’s the matter of the gold, which Gates still has no intention of giving up, setting the stage for a thrilling journey through the Iraqi desert as they attempt to escort Iraqis to freedom.

I really enjoyed THREE KINGS, both its story and its quirky tone, which for the most part works as a black comedy.

It was interesting to watch a movie about the first Iraqi war, made before the events of September 11.  So many recent movies have focused on the second Iraqi war and the events following 9/11.  Events depicted in this movie, while still disturbing— it’s a war after all— still don’t play as intense as recent films on the second Iraqi war and the war in Afghanistan, movies like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  Our collective consciousness is much darker now than it was when this film was made in 1999.

But that’s not to say that THREE KINGS doesn’t have its share of intense moments.  It does.  The execution of the Iraqi woman in front of her young daughter, for example, is a jarring sequence, as is the torture sequence where Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Barlow is captured by Iraqi soldiers and tortured with electric shocks and is eventually forced to drink motor oil.  These scenes are not for the squeamish.

I also had to keep reminding myself that this was about the first Iraqi war.  For instance, when the film makes reference to Saddam Hussein and the influence he wields over his Republican Guard, I found myself scratching my head questioning, “Saddam Hussein?  Isn’t he dead?”  Of course, then I’d remember that the objective of this first war was only to oust Hussein from Kuwait, and that he wasn’t removed from power and eventually executed until after the second Iraqi war.

Writer/Director David O. Russell has made a hard hitting war movie that effectively makes its point that although Americans largely viewed this war as a “clean” war, in that not a lot of American soldiers lost their lives, and that its objective was largely met, it’s still a war, and for the people of Iraq, there was nothing “clean” about it.  It disrupted their lives and caused death and destruction.

Russell keeps things from being too bleak with a quirky tone that generates laughter, albeit mostly of the uncomfortable variety.  Spike Jonze’ Private Vig is humorous in his naivety, even though his ignorant views are as sad as they are funny.  His banter with Walberg’s Sergeant Barlow is the liveliest part of the movie.

Russell would go on to make THE FIGHTER (2010), also with Wahlberg, and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), two films I liked better than THREE KINGS.  Russell also directed AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), the overly ambitious 1970s con artist tale which I liked but didn’t love, and I think that while THREE KINGS is a less ambitious film than AMERICAN HUSTLE, I liked it more.

As screenplays go, Russell’s work here with THREE KINGS is very good, as the story remains compelling throughout and actually gets better and more exciting as the movie goes along, and the dialogue is first-rate.  It makes its points about the Gulf War and provides plenty of entertaining snappy dialogue that is riveting and real.  That being said, it’s not quite as good as his screenplay for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).  That one was a grand slam.

George Clooney is terrific as Major Archie Gates.  At first, the jury is out on this character, as you wonder what kind of a man he is since he’s willing to steal gold from the Iraqis, but when he steps up to intervene on the innocent Iraqis’ behalf, you see firsthand what kind of a man he is, and he’s all the better for it.  Clooney is effective throughout and makes Gates in spite of his early actions a man you can root for.

Reportedly, Clooney and director Russell feuded on the set, so much so that Clooney declared he’d never work with Russell again.  Not sure if this is true or not, but Clooney’s Gates certainly seems like his he has a chip on his shoulder throughout this movie.

Mark Walberg is also excellent as Sergeant Troy Barlow.  There’s a youthful exuberance about Barlow, a naivety that nonetheless is balanced with a sense of responsibility and leadership.  Barlow takes the even more naïve Private Vig under his wing and looks out for him throughout the story.  It was fun to see a younger Walberg, and while he’s very good in this movie, he’s gotten even better over the years, improving to the point where he’s one of the better actors working today.

 

Spike Jonze is memorable as Private Conrad Vig, although I wanted to give the character a library card and a newspaper with the instructions to start reading.  Vig is a backwards but well-meaning character, and Jonze does a nice job capturing these traits.  Ice Cube is also notable as the religious Sergeant Chief Elgin.  He provides the moral conscience for the group.

Nora Dunn is also very good as reporter Adriana Cruz, who spends the bulk of the movie getting the runaround from Clooney’s Gates, but we get to know her well as she shares her lamentations about the war, wondering what this war was really all about.  And at the end, when Gates needs the help of the press to get his job done, it’s Cruz that he turns to.

I really liked THREE KINGS.  It’s a thought-provoking exciting movie about a war that nowadays has been largely overshadowed by the traumatic events which were soon to follow it.

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