*SPOILERS* I have so many good things to say about this film. In fact, I think I am a little bit obsessed. I can't stop reading about David Russell's films, how he lights his sets, how the actors prepare and I have read far too much about Jennifer Lawrence's filmography and life for my own good.
So I am going to try and focus this post on one aspect of David Russell's latest film "Joy" starring Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro.
David Russell writes dysfunctional relationships amazingly well. He writes them so well that you find yourself craving more. You end up loving the moment the characters start screaming at each other and throwing things, purely because the writing is solid gold to listen to.
The strength of films like "Silver Lining's Playbook", "American Hustle" and "Joy" is grounded in the depth of the characters and the way they interact with each other.
The thing is Russell doesn't simply write shallow angry characters who are weird and shout at each other. Each character has a reason for the way they are. Each character reminds us slightly (terrifying as it is) of someone we know or (even more terrifying) of ourselves. Because these films play on a certain truth, a truth exaggerated but a truth all the same - that every human has a bit of crazy in them. That every human has a dangerous side.
Here are 3 reasons I loved the character interactions in "Joy":
1. The characters are at odds with each other on some level. Isn't that life? I can go through an entire day seeing only people I love and cherish and still feel come nighttime that one of them annoyed me on some level. We constantly feel like everyone else in the world is at odds with us at some point in our life. We see life one way, they see it another. We want one thing, they want another. We see ourselves one way, they see us totally differently. In "Joy" although Joy loves her family, her family oppose her almost entirely through the film, perhaps not physically but emotionally they give her grief and pain over and over again.
2. The characters have a past that has an impact on their present which they need to overcome. The unfolding of Joy's childhood story is so well paced. We know she loved to make things as a child and that creating worlds was her a huge part of her life. We also find out early on that she had a box of paper buildings and trees she had made. We then seem to skip a bunch of years (17 to be exact) to where Joy is a divorced mother, working a horrible job and looking after her family. Her creativity seems to have been placed on a back burner. It takes a long time before we are shown the second half of that childhood story, when her father rips her paper world up during a fight with her mother. That scene is really important. It's important because it tells us that Joy didn't just stop creating because life got in the way (which could imply she doesn't have gumption) but because her father ripping her creations broke her spirit for a while. Her family literally tore her world out of her hands and into little pieces. The thing she had to overcome in a sense was her family. Not in a cruel way, like abandoning them or throwing them off, but getting past the hold they have over her.
3.The characters are physical. Now I'm not sure if this is part of the script or if it happens during the working out of the performance but in "Joy" especially there was a lot of physicality. It reminded me of a stage play. Joy had her trusty mug of something (was it coffee?) which appears in her hand now and again. Even something as simple as giving a character a mug to hold when she's irritated allows the actor to show emotion through more than her face. You see it in the way she holds the cup. One of my favourite scenes out of the whole film was when Robert DeNiro's character, Joy's father, starts to smash ornaments on the floor after arguing with his ex-wife. What can I say. It said everything. It told me he can't control his anger, it told me what kind of childhood Joy probably had, it told me what kind of marriage Joy's mother was in and it told me he was very, very angry. It was great. I think sometimes as a writer I am afraid to go that far with my characters. Don't be afraid. Push them all the way.