Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Year of Joy

A shared sense of irony connects two 2015 releases with principal characters named Joy, both of whom are plunged into pits of despair -- one of them pretty much literally. The irony is strong in these two when you consider that Joy is the actual title of one of these pictures, the one based on a real person of that name, while the other features an actual embodiment of the emotion of joy. But if David O. Russell's Joy resembles any Pixar cartoon it's Brad Bird's Ratatouille, in which an ambitious striver transcends a demoralizing environment. Russell has gotten some grief this holiday season for daring to release a film that refrains from banal idolization of Family, but I'd wonder about people for whom the heroine's familial dysfunction doesn't ring at least partially true. Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is trapped in webs of neediness and codependence; apart from her beloved grandmother her relatives are about as helpful to her as Anger, Disgust and Fear are when left to steer a human being on their own. Yet Joy is still a vindication of family if only by default, because the heroine never even thinks of walking away from them. Part of the motivation for her fateful creativity -- the real Joy Mangano built an entrepreneurial empire on her invention of the self-wringing Miracle Mop -- is the sense of responsibility she feels for the lot of them, and she never stops feeling responsible no matter how many times they fail or betray her. She goes slightly Michael Corleone on her envious half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm) in one wrong-note scene, but if you want to sustain the comparison then at least Joy will be the sort of benign leader of her family that Michael only promised to be.

If Joy still seems like a slap in the face to some current sensibilities it's also a throwback to the aspirational melodramas of the supposedly more innocent days of classic Hollywood, when they had different illusions from ours but didn't share all of ours, either. Joy is the work of a modern (or postmodern) Fannie Hurst, Russell acknowledging the soap-operatic nature of his story by making Joy's mother's favorite soap opera a running joke that bleeds into Joy's dreams, but also seemingly acknowledging a truth at the heart of soaps that transcends their bad acting and flat staging, just as Russell seems to consciously echo the bad-on-purpose TV direction in some of the main story's climactic confrontations. In recent films he's striven to master the machinery of melodrama and here again, as with American Hustle, the results are highly entertaining if ultimately too good to be strictly true. But speaking of classic Hollywood, everybody lay off Jennifer Lawrence. When Russell casts her in roles that seem too old for her, he's only doing what studios did with leading ladies all the time long ago. How else do you explain that Olivia De Havilland and Kirk Douglas will both turn 100 this year, but Olivia had a decade's head-start in Hollywood on Kirk? Actresses were considered early bloomers back then, capable of maturity beyond their years, and Lawrence is simply a throwback to that sort of stardom, with the charisma and power to justify the casting. It's her turn to be the star of the Russell Stock Company this time and, ably supported by regulars Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper ("Him again!?" someone protested when Cooper was revealed as the QVC honcho who gives Joy her big break), as well as newcomers like Edgar (Carlos the Jackal) Ramirez (as an increasingly helpful ex-husband) and Isabella Rossellini (as an increasingly wicked stepmother of sorts) she's her usual unstoppable self. The only real fault I can find with Joy is that its final reversal of fortune, bringing the heroine's final triumph, comes out of nowhere. One moment she's had a self-pitying tantrum that seems finally to reveal her as her father's daughter, and in the next she's facing down a sinister businessman who vaguely threatens to kill her with reveals of detective work that probably should have been shown rather than told about. I think it would have added to the suspense if the audience had clues that there was something fishy about the rival patent claim that Joy needed to figure out, and it couldn't have hurt if the audience saw Joy start to figure it all out rather than keep us wondering what she's up to cutting her hair and going to Texas before the big showdown. But if the climax comes too abruptly the character's victory still seems well earned after everything she's endured; the heroine's journey matters as much as the destination and by the end Joy makes the journey for the heroine and the audience seem worthwhile.

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What's missing at the climax of Joy is the moment of realization and enlightenment that comes in Pete Doctor's Inside Out when that film's Joy discovers the truth about her increasingly conflicted relationship with a dysfunctional colleague. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is the first among equals -- she's the first to emerge from the void at the dawning of consciousness -- in a committee of five emotions who steer the development of a girl named Riley. I mentioned three of her colleagues in passing a paragraph ago, but if anyone presents a real threat to her as Riley grows older, it's the backward seeming Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy is possessive toward Riley and insists on unconditional happiness for her, but when Riley's family moves from Minnesota to California Sadness becomes almost unconsciously more assertive and more dangerous, changing Riley's core memories from Joy's gold color to her own blue. Joy's jealous efforts to prevent these changes plunge the pair into a typical Pixar predicament. Cast out of their control center, they must team up to make their way back through Riley's subconsciousness before the other three knuckleheads make the girl take extreme measures. This is possibly the most apocalyptic of Pixar films as Riley's turmoil literally burns bridges and devastates vast areas of her mind and memory all around our little heroines. Pixar's knack for portraying tiny but perfectly recognizable figures in huge settings really gets a showcase here.

At the darkest moment, with nearly all of Riley's islands of happy memories destroyed, Joy is separated from Sadness and plunges with Riley's old imaginary friend Bing-Bong into an oubliette from which escape seems very unlikely. Here Joy breaks down and sobs in despair, in an unusually long close-up shot. And it's when Joy discovers her own capacity for sadness that she also discovers the connection between joy and sadness in memory. She's been hoarding a number of golden core memories, one of which Sadness has partially tainted with her touch. Joy remembers the occasion when this particular memory was minted, but buzzkill Sadness has a very different memory of the moment. At first Joy dismisses Sadness's memory as her typical stupidity, but in her great moment of insight she learns that Riley's sadness that day was the precondition of her later joy, and deduces that Riley will never know joy again unless she can express her suffocating sadness now. It's an ingenious solution grounded in one of Pixar's most thoroughly imagined fantasy worlds, one replicated in the brain of every sentient creature. Inside Out gives us tantalizing glimpses of the play of emotions in the heads of other people and other beings, enough to suggest an entire theory of emotional maturation. Two of Riley's emotions are male, three female, but when we look inside her parents' heads the older emotions have grown homogenized. Each one retains its original color and basic shape, but all of Mom's emotions wear the same glasses, wig and pearls (and a remarkably calm Sadness is their leader), while all Dad's emotions sport moustaches (and a relatively laid-back Anger has the comm). These fleeting scenes speak untold volumes, placing this cartoon among the more emotionally if not intellectually profound Pixar productions. But it's often funny as hell as well, from the macabre slapstick of Joy and Sadness's effort to infiltrate a dream studio in a patently fake and promptly dismembered dog suit ("Bark! Bark!" emotes Joy) to some of the stupidest cops (in Riley's subconscious) that cinema has shown us in some time -- the "My hat" gag may be my favorite in the whole picture. The only problem I have with Inside Out is the way people say it's the best Pixar, or the first good Pixar, in such a long time, as if there's something wrong with Brave. That being said, I think it is better than Brave, while I insist on that film's quality, and Pixar's best since Toy Story 3. Its combined critical and box-office success ought to have Pixar asking why they keep having this compulsion to do sequels when originality has rewards such as these.

The moral of both films is that true joy comes through struggle and after coming to terms with the inescapable sadness of life. The virtue of both is that each can find so many funny or otherwise entertaining ways to say this. Inside Out and Joy represent the best, or nearly the best, of what pop cinema can produce when the machine runs on all engines.

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