Rating: Once the mad organisation of Christmas and forced merriment of New Year's Eve is over, and the week-long mulled wine stupor and January 1st hangover begin to subside, the real impact of this new year kicks in; back to work, a return of responsibilities, countless distant commitments now occurring "THIS YEAR", facing the fact that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is less than three months away. Urgh... It's all so stressful, so what better way to alleviate the tension than to trot along to the local multiplex for some high quality escapism? Well, if you are heading out in the New Year to "switch off your brain" (a dumb term, but let's go with it), then maybe Joy isn't the best film for you. David O. Russell's latest awards season release is a stressful, at points overwhelming movie. Jennifer Lawrence's eponymous character (who isn't given a surname, only furthering the title's irony) is a divorced mother of two who must care for her kids, mother, father, grandmother and ex-husband while struggling at work and haunted by memories of what she really wanted from life (biting your nails anxiously yet?). This ultimately leads to what could be described as a breakdown, which leads to her inventing the Miracle Mop (something they hid pretty extensively in the advertising) and forging out her own identity in the big, bad world. This gradual escalation of pressure in Joy's life, seeing her increasingly more downtrodden by powers bigger than her no matter how much of a fight she puts up, is almost physically aggravating. It's so dominant to begin with that the opening sequence is just mounting responsibilities and problems over the course of a single morning. Although ostensibly to set up the protagonists every-woman status (a key element of her rags to riches arc), it goes bigger than that; Russell is holding up a mirror to reality and bringing out all of your own angst along with Joy's, ensuring the first forty odd minutes are an exhausting watch. And if that makes Joy sound like a "tough" film, it really shouldn't. This is assured filmmaking that works in terms of both narrative involvement and wider themes, showing some astute observations and the knowledge of how to bring them to real life within a glossy prestige picture. Lawrence in particular is great, her title-less female strength more than making up for the fact she's way too young for the role. This is all underscored by a brilliant in-universe soap opera that plays out as the painful melodrama this could easily have been; a crazily staged delight, it at once serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting parallel and symbol of the world Joy's trying to escape. So, in a way, Joy is a perfect New Year's Day film; it's all about life-changing resolutions and sticking with something in the face of massive adversity, be it the bankruptcy of yourself and your family or sitting in a cinema with a big bucket of popcorn instead of going for a run. Sadly, when you step out of the execution of this key element of subtext, the film is a lot less remarkable. Never bad, but for vast stretches, particularly those that step away from Joy's journey, a bit bland. It's like (ho hum) watching the shopping channel for far too long - curious to break down what it's doing, even if it's not quite doing it right. The film is full of great concepts unsubtly realised that mean for every cheer at realism or the character's development, there's a groan at how the story's being told; Joy coming out of her shell and confidently selling her mop (oh, the corniness of that sentence is probably why they didn't market it on that) is great, but it comes mere minutes after introducing Bradley Cooper's character with a gradual reveal, a trick akin to Robert De Niro in American Hustle that falls flat because it's Bradley Cooper and not one of the greatest actors ever. It's typical of Russell's recent efforts (American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook) - as always his music choices are very obvious and there's a Goodfellas-esque voiceover that has limited moments of effectiveness - but as here he's managed something so measured with his portrayal of everyday life, it's more irritating. I've never fully bought into the biannual Russell-Lawrence-Cooper showcases that zap far too much Oscar hype than they should, mainly because they have no real point beyond the aesthetics. Joy surprisingly rectifies that, to an astounding degree. It's just a shame that, in imbuing the film with purpose, Russell lost the unflinching entertainment that bolstered his other, lesser movies. Joy is in cinemas now.
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