Joy: Lawrence adds strings to her bow

Let’s say, in some other reality, Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t met David O. Russell and her career had (thus far) just been built upon an impressively gritty debut (Winter’s Bone) and a teen action franchise (Hunger Games), would we hold her in such high regard?

I rather doubt it. And this really isn’t a dig, but it’s fair to say her collaboration with writer-director David O. Russell over three films now (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now Joy) have hugely elevated her career – in terms of dramatic credentials – and evolved her talent as one of Hollywood’s top actresses.

One thing it’s worth noting is that she’s always been able to hold the screen well and could carry a film right from the start of her career but, each time she works with O. Russell, he pushes her further. She evolves and matures.

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Now it’s arguable that Silver Linings Playbook may be a more satisfying film for audiences, but in Joy she perhaps gives a more complete and complex performance. Oscar material some say it may be, but first and foremost we as the audience must connect with her character and journey. Which we do, of course.

When we meet Joy she’s a young girl with hopes and dreams who likes to make things. Flash forward and she’s a young mother looking after a demented father (Robert de Niro) who’s been booted out of his latest relationship and a cabaret singer ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who both end up living in her basement. Oh, and a mother (Virginia Madsen) who spends her time in bed endlessly watching soaps and no one appears to be doing much to hold the family together, except Joy. And so she’s lost her lust and vitality for life, scraping a living trying to make ends meet.

Then she has a dream and invents a mop. And we go from there.

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On paper you might say this has quirky Wes Anderson written all over it. But David O. Russell tends to do things his own way and it’s almost always substance over style and character drives everything. And Joy is a character, that’s evident. She evolves in clear and distinct ways. From the moment she invents her Miracle Mop she’s focused and more driven. There’s an edge to her and she becomes more hardened and glassy-eyed each time she faces a new challenge, whether it’s from those closest to her putting her down in well-meaning but ultimately rather tactless ways, or those she meets in business who try and get one over on her and more often than not, emphatically fail.

And Lawrence gives her a wonderful texture and believability.

She’s always been good at delivering lines with gravitas for one so young, but she does make it look rather effortless at times, completely drawing us into her performance. The rest of the cast ain’t half bad too. If only De Niro stuck to these kinds of films from now we’d all be happier. For every Joy he does a Dirty Grandpa or some other type of drivel not worth his talent. But hey, he’s Robert de Niro, he can do what he likes.

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Another David O. Russell alumni present is Bradley Cooper; more front and centre in Silver Linings Playbook here he has a smaller part, but makes an impact sharing a few rather touching scenes with Lawrence as the man who gives Joy her first big break on the QVC channel.

What’s notable about this film (in that it’s absent) is the complete lack of a romantic subplot or character with whom she ‘has to have’ steamy moments to keep the audience interested. As the film starts with the fact she’s divorced we get a flashback to their time together, but purely for character development as the story doesn’t linger there long. And rightly so, that’s not what’s being told and it would be distracting. Kudos to O. Russell for staying the course.

So what we have, at the end of it all, is quite an inspiring tale to keep pushing tenaciously for your dreams and to believe in yourself – held together masterfully by Jennifer Lawrence, who probably gets better every time I see her in a film (always a good sign).

Incidentally, not a bad way to see in gloomy January I’d say.

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American Hustle: another stone cold zinger from David O. Russell?

Big hair, big actors, big performances and small dresses. That’s what you get from this latest offering by writer-director David O. Russell – the man behind award winning films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.american-hustle

Set in the ’70s and loosely following the FBI Abscam operation, we start with our main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), sporting a hairy paunch and possibly the best combover since Bill Murray in Kingpin.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and the pair fall for each other, becoming a successful con artist couple until getting busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI man trying to make a name for himself.PDC - Best Films - American Hustle DiMaso convinces the pair to set up various politicians, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), which then leads his operation onto bigger fish, namely mobsters.

There’s the setup. There’s a lot more but suffice to say that films featuring con artists often have numerous double crosses, shady backhanders and ambiguous motives galore. It’s essentially the director playing the three cups game with the audience. Just when you think you know which cup hides the plot twist, boom, deception!

That said, the con part of this film isn’t hugely tough to follow, the plot ticks along nicely. The whole Abscam thing almost more of a backdrop to allow O. Russell to showcase a host of interesting characters. In short, this is a character study.

Indeed, it’s a character driven movie with Irving front and centre as the driving force. Plaudits already seem to be going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – the former Irving’s mistress the latter his unhinged wife, Rosalyn – yet it’s Bale who anchors the whole thingAmy-Adams -American-Hustle--02 with a commanding yet vulnerable performance; as a man who recognises his place in the criminal world and feels control gradually slipping from his grasp.

Amy Adams’ Sydney is partly responsible for Irving’s loss of control. Blaming him for getting her busted in the first place, she puts herself in the centre of a love triangle between Irving and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. Is she conning them both? Does she have genuine feelings for DiMaso? Huge credit to Adams for leading us down this sexy garden path with a fiercely seductive performance yet… she’s similar to Irving. The deeper she goes the more she feels things are spinning out of control.

Enter DiMaso. Cooper’s portrayal of an ambitious – and possibly quite naive – FBI man is yet another feather in O. Russell’s cap – and Cooper’s too. He charges about the place, manipulating Irving and Sydney, intimidating his boss (brilliantly played by Louis C.K.) yet he’s the same… never quite in control, mentally or emotionally.

And if we’re on the subject of emotional control, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn gives a masterclass in how to be an unmanageable wife. Jennifer-Lawrence -American-Hustle--04Furiously demanding Irving’s attention and love, setting fire to the science oven (microwaves were just coming out), getting him in trouble with the mob. Perhaps this is all summed up in one beautiful scene where she sings ‘Live and let die’ whilst furiously cleaning.

So… coming back to my title, is this a zinger? Well, mostly. It’s a great film, lots of fun. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of The Fighter or the intricate nuances of Silver Linings Playbook, but there’s no doubt it will pick up a stack of awards. And it shows that, with O.Russell we’ve got a director who’s found his ’70s flair and shared the secret with his mad, bad cast. Groovy baby.

Silver Linings Playbook – smart, edgy rom-com

Seems David O. Russell is on a bit of a roll. Following a six-year break after I ♥ Huckabees, the Writer/Director returned in 2010 with a film which bagged him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, critically-acclaimed boxing tale, The Fighter.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKHis latest effort, Silver Linings Playbook, is another triumph – dramatic, touching, funny and heart-warming. This is down to a smart script, assured direction and stand-out performances – particular from the two leads, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

What’s it all about?
Pat (Cooper) is a history teacher with bipolar disorder, recently released from mental hospital following a violent outburst upon catching his wife with another man.  Despite suffering mood swings and having to contend with a restraining order, he’s convinced he can win back his wife. Then Tiffany (Lawrence) enters his life, herself a recovering sex addict, a condition brought about following the death of her husband.

The two initially bond discussing the types of medication they’ve taken – then begin to form an unlikely friendship. Pat asks Tiffany to give his wife a letter, hoping something which explains he’s getting his life back on track will rekindle their marriage. Tiffany thinks he’s deluded but agrees to help, but only if Pat helps her practice for a dance competition. We all know where this is going right?

silver linings playbookA tale of two wounded souls
Whilst the story may be nothing new – with the exception of the bipolar aspect – this film lives or dies by its leads. Both Cooper and Lawrence deliver career-best performances. For Lawrence, that’s saying something. She’s already had an Oscar nomination for her performance as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone. Here, her latest offering looks likely to get another Best Actress nomination, possibly even a win.

Cooper was surprisingly impressive. All twitchy, unfocused energy with a blunt, direct nature and an imposing presence. You get the sense this is a guy capable of violent outbursts, but really trying his hardest to hold it all together. He also brings comic timing to the character, helping balance out the darker moments. Easily his best work to date. That said, his performance alone would not have lifted the film to the heights it achieved.

silver linings lawrenceLawrence the silver lining
The secret weapon of this film – or true silver lining if you like – was Tiffany. Once again, Lawrence showing the depth of her talent. She’s just astonishing. Obviously there’s a sizeable age gap (Lawrence was 21 during filming, Cooper 37), but she displays a maturity beyond her years – making the attraction between the two wounded souls of Tiffany and Pat wholly believable. She gives Tiffany a wildly unpredictable nature – often switching instantly between vulnerable, raw and conflicted, to steely, fiery and determined. This tends to break down Pat’s defences, leaving him utterly confused, poor chap.

Does this better her performance in Winter’s Bone? Perhaps not, but it more effectively displays her talents and range as an actress – marking her out as one to watch with great interest in the future.

Silver Linings Playbook De NiroDe Niro the dad
As a final note, it’s worth mentioning De Niro, playing Pat’s dad. Another flawed soul with a touch of OCD, cut from the same cloth as his son. It’s arguably his best performance in a long time.

In some of his more comedy-driven roles in the last few years he’s probably overplayed it, to a degree. Here he pitches it perfectly. David O. Russell really does seem to get the best out of the the actors at his disposal, even if he’s known for sometimes rubbing them up the wrong way.

To sum up, Silver Linings is a smart, quirky, dramatic rom-com that tackles some tough issues (marriage, mental health), however it’s buoyed up by a smart script and strong performances – with Lawrence showing that Winter’s Bone was just the start of her ascendancy.