Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
3 (out of 5) Globes
As recent as six years ago David O. Russell was persona non grata: an auteur too singular and too troubled to get a movie off the ground. The dizzying, eccentric “I Heart Huckabees” was seen (by some) as too out there even before footage of the director screaming at actor Lily Tomlin between takes went viral; his health care satire, “Nailed,” died mid-shoot. (It was cobbled together and released, without his aid, earlier this year with the new, gross name “Accidental Love.”) Then he made an improbably rousing comeback, with an underdog tale, appropriately enough: “The Fighter,” the first in an unlikely renaissance, which found a turbulent artist reborn as a populist with “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”
Russell, it can be (and has been) argued, may have gone too far the other way. His earlier works — including “Spanking the Monkey,” “Flirting with Disaster” and “Three Kings,” plus the great “I Heart Huckabees” — were critical darlings that only slightly connected with the mainstream. Since “The Fighter” the inverse has happened: though he’s still “acclaimed,” it’s in the fashion dubbed “Oscar-friendly.” He has passionate detractors, including the very ones who were early cheerleaders.
The truth about Russell lies somewhere in between. He’s no bland Ron Howard, but he has sanded down some, though far from all, of his edges. His characters, always overly passionate babble-mouths who tend to scream over each other while cramming into whirling dervish frames, used to be darker. Now they’re overtly lovable, even when they’re off the skids. Even the most venal character in “American Hustle” is “fun.” And yet Russell’s gift for creating controlled chaos remains peerless, and his view of American go-getterism is still stealthily and usefully cockeyed.
“Joy,” the fourth film after the filmmaker’s comeback, continues Russell 2.0, and you can even be weary with the brand, as we tend to get in the moment. Here’s yet another combustible family of lunatics scampering about snaky long takes; here’s yet another charismatic Jennifer Lawrence performance opposite an on-edge Bradley Cooper; here’s yet another mixed paean to American exceptionalism. “Joy” may seem more of the same, but it’s smaller than “Hustle” and also more focused, as though he was trying to pare his new shtick down to its essence.