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Oscar Snubs: Best Picture noms lack ‘Joy’

| Tuesday, January 26, 2016

joy-web--NEWSUSAN ZHU | The Observer

Resting next to “Creed” and “Steve Jobs” on this year’s shelf of Academy snubs — in some cases, complete misses — is David O. Russell’s “Joy,” the vibrant, spry comedy that found unstable critical ground in its one-month run.

David O. Russell directed “Joy,” but perhaps I should correct myself: “Joy” belongs wholeheartedly to Jennifer Lawrence, who garnered her fourth acting nomination for playing the title character.

“Joy” loosely chronicles Joy Mangano’s real midlife turnaround in her attempt to patent and sell the Miracle Mop — a self-wringing mop that’s machine washable. The movie doesn’t make any claim to the importance of the mop, except in that it marks Joy’s decision to reclaim childhood ambitions long suppressed by her family’s immediate needs.

Joy’s family was a constant point of complaint for the film’s detractors. It’s true that her difficult relatives (including a smooth-singing Edgar Ramirez, an aged but elegant Isabella Rossellini and an unsurprisingly crusty Robert De Niro) evolve little in the film, but this should be no aggravation to the audience; the result is more time spent with Joy, who is nuanced and delightful at every moment.

That said, “Joy” might not feel quite as whole as other Russell films, but what it lacks in solidity, it makes up for in a string of truly great moments. Russell grounds Lawrence’s performance in visual splendor and sonic confidence, from high-energy family-problem snowballs (song: Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”) to barrel-smoking deliverance (Elvis comes in with “A Little Less Conversation”) to a 007 vent-crawling escapade (here it’s the Rolling Stones with “Stray Cat Blues”).

Sure, “Joy” is messy, and that’s a necessary filter for trying to pick something like a Best Picture nominee. But “Joy” is no less messy — and messy in better ways — than “The Big Short” or “Mad Max: Fury Road.” In fact, the film seems quite aware of its messiness and more willing to revel in a little cinematic anarchy than put on an air of perfection or prestige.

We follow Joy through layers. By the end of the film, we get the sense of a preexisting system of male manipulation and incompetency. Joy wants power and control over her dreams in a world that is not eager to hand either to a woman, even less so to a single mother whose family and debt are constantly nipping at her heels.

So the audience takes great pleasure in knowing that no one but Joy is responsible for her ultimate success. Not her investor/Italian step-mother Trudy, not even Bradley Cooper’s character, whose place in this film remains its most confusedly contrived element. As a manager for TV shopping network QVC, he directs Joy to the hurdles, but she clears them alone.

Lawrence’s performance, so full of her own charm and depth, manages to distract from a screenplay that is almost equally good. Russell wrote it, and so the execution is that much better; scenes rhyme and resonate against each other, and Russell imbues a number of visual patterns that unite the film in the exploration of Joy’s familiar relationships and the ways those relationships evolve or fail to evolve through the passage of time.

For several characters in “Joy,” this arrested development spouts from a desire to change but a reluctance to grow. Joy speaks and lives in the active, rejecting passivity even if it means bumping shoulders with loved ones, rejecting and overcoming a society that not only attempts to foster but feeds on this kind of passivity in its women.

The strength of that argument, all other wonders aside, is what merits “Joy” a Best Picture nomination. With complexity and rigor, “Joy” depicts the moment where an individual decides to open a door and pick up a gun, and Jennifer Lawrence does both of those just fine.

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