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Contrarian Corner: Age is Just a Number As J.Law Dazzles in 'Joy'

Jose continues our new series Contrarian Corner in which team members who feel very off-consensus about a particular topic can work through it... 

One of the most surreal moments in my life occurred when I was able to speak to Winona Ryder about Jennifer Lawrence. Like J.Law, Ryder became the “it girl” early during her career, and during the early 90s earned back-to-back Oscar nominations and critical/commercial adoration. Unlike J.Law, Ryder wasn’t able to make the most out of what fame and screen maturity had granted her, as she was denied serious parts because of her age. She looked “too young” to play “older parts”, and reached a point (i.e. her 30s) where she was “too old” to play younger parts. Perhaps because she has the good fortune of staying away from social media, Ms. Ryder was unaware of the constant criticism J.Law faces whenever she teams up with David O. Russell.

I don’t even know how old she is. I always thought she was the age of her characters”

Kudos to Ms. Ryder for reminding us that films are all about suspending our disbelief.  [More...]

Deem it a combination of knowing too much about films before they’re released, anti-Russell sentiment, or plain old “kill your idols”-ness, but it was no surprise to see that once people started hearing about Joy, it was a throwback to the exact same complaints that we heard when Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle came out. All of which boiled down to disliking the film for one of three options: Russell is a jerk, so his films must be boycotted; Russell is trying too hard to win awards by making Scorsese ripoffs; J.Law is too young to be playing anything other than action heroines. 

Russell’s films with Lawrence therefore, are doomed with the curse of always being encountered with utterly lazy criticism. 

What’s fascinating is how Russell and Lawrence react to these criticisms with mischievous self-awareness. Knowing their collaborations are reviewed using ready-to-fill forms, they have even announced they will be teaming up again in a film where she will play Robert De Niro’s mother. This endless outrage has sadly robbed us of engaged criticism and thoughtful conversation. Russell has, for better or for worse, become one of the most interesting postmodernist film historians of our times. Ever since reinventing himself with The Fighter (i.e. becoming an Oscar-hungry monster according to many) he has been delivering zany updates of some of Hollywood’s most cherished classic genres: The Fighter as inspirational sports film, Silver Linings Playbook a Capra-esque romantic comedy, American Hustle was The Sting, and with Joy he turns to the “woman’s picture” or the melodrama. 

Taking the basics of the story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, he has filtered and dissected the melodrama through two storytelling styles that have always been linked to the feminine: the fairy tale and the soap opera. He uses them to tell the story of a woman who against all odds became one of the most important inventors/entrepreneurs of the 20th century. When we first meet Joy, she is a mother trying to keep her household together; her mom (Virginia Madsen) prefers the safety of soaps to the harshness of the real world, her father (Robert De Niro), and ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) are living in her basement in denial of their adulthood, her half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) envies her, leaving only her grandmother (Diane Ladd) and best friend (Dascha Polanco) as her allies. 

But this isn’t a story of victimhood or about a damsel-in-distress, as we hear young Joy (a lovely Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) establish, her special power is she doesn’t need a prince to come rescue her. She has her brain, and as the film unfolds we see her go from a slightly insecure, but determined, head of household, to a ferocious, but benevolent businesswoman seeking to impart justice in a world that wasn’t always particularly kind to her. As we follow her rise to the top, Russell uses every trope in the book to constantly remind us that the film isn’t a matter of fact biopic, but an homage to great films of Hollywood’s Golden Era in which grand female movie stars were the draw.

Bette Davis, Dorothy Lamour, Olivia de Havilland, Jennifer Jones, Jennifer Lawrence

Curiously, these films also featured bona fide movie stars in roles that saw them age through “movie magic”. In films like 1943’s Madame Curie, we see 39-year-old Greer Garson play Marie Curie from her mid-30s all the way to age 63, as she celebrated the quarter century anniversary of the discovery of radius. In Mother Wore Tights, a 31-year-old Betty Grable was aged over 40 years to play vaudeville star Myrtle McKinley. Olivia de Havilland famously won a Best Actress Oscar at age 30 for playing the tragic Miss Josephine Norris in To Each His Own, in a role which towards the end of the film saw her play mother to John Lund, who was five years her senior.

While arguably these conventions are old fashioned and for the most part seem politically incorrect for the world that we live in, they don’t diminish the power of the performances. De Havilland will always be moving, Curie will always be majestic, and in films like Mr. Skeffington and The Old Maid, both of which saw her don white wigs and wrinkles, Bette Davis will never not impress. (outside of the Golden Age era Liz Taylor did it in Giant, Ash Wednesday and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Kate Winslet in The Reader, Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Julianne Moore in The Hours…) Why isn’t Lawrence allowed this too?

In Joy, Russell makes mention of a classic actress in particular, as TV executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) explains the ropes of QVC to Joy, he compares himself to producer David O. Selznick, and tells her how he married Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones (Nathaniel pointed out the Oscar parallels between both Jennifers here). While Neil’s anecdote has more to do with romance and the ordinary meeting the extraordinary, it draws an undeniable creative parallel between Lawrence and her mentor, making it clear that more than anything else, Joy is an altar to the power of a classic female movie star (needless to say so, in Good Morning, Miss Dove, 36-year-old Jones was aged 40 years to play the title character as she looked back at her life).

But having Lawrence playing a Jones-type heroine isn’t enough for Russell, he understands that homage can only go so far, so what he does is that he grabs these tropes and subverts them by comparing them to real life moments in Lawrence’s professional career, which has been nothing if not quite admirable both artistically and commercially. There is a scene where Joy confronts a man who has tried to cheat her in business, and she explains that no men in California have treated her well, even if “we’re supposed to be in business together”, one can practically imagine Lawrence engaging in similar conversations as she negotiates her contracts following the Sony hack, which helped her become one of the most outspoken figures when it comes to pay equality.

When Joy’s patents are in peril of being stolen, we see her reclaim them as her own, similarly to how Lawrence approached her leaked picture scandal by reminding us all that to take part in diffusion of stolen property is to be a thief. That Lawrence has acted with such maturity at such a young age, more than merits why in latter scenes of Joy, we see her as a wise figure helping younger women achieve their dreams. In real life, Joy Mangano has patented hundreds of products and has aided female inventors, so it makes sense that Russell also envisions Lawrence as a Hollywood doyenne, fighting to protect the rights of other women in the industry. That he shoots these scenes as if they were part of The Godfather and Citizen Kane, with Lawrence playing Don Corleone and Charles Foster Kane is deliciously subversive, and has for the most part remained undiscussed.

Joy is by no means a perfect film, but it contains ideas and themes that aren’t part of most mainstream cinema (quick, name the last movie you saw about a female inventor!). Erin Brockovich was perhaps the last time an American director decided to provide a superstar with a vehicle that celebrated both her star power and her thespian abilities, and as such, it’s a shame that the discussion has remained so obtuse. Despite her age, Lawrence is also a woman in Hollywood, so to deny her parts that should go to older actresses, is to put her in a position that would inevitably lead to filmmakers simply forgetting about her, or like they did with Ryder, having them put her aside as they waited for her to fit their preconceived notions of how she should look at a certain age.

Accusing Russell of aiding this problem might not be farfetched, but would he even want to do a film like Joy without the heroine he had in mind? Are we better off not having movies about women if they won’t star the women we think should be in them? By now, Lawrence has showed us that she has enough range to secure a long career in the industry, so should she quit in her mid twenties and/or only play action heroines or mutants while she “grows up” to play older women? Her self aware, mature work in Joy is proof that we’re better off having her in our screens, and as often as possible.

So let's bring back the conversation to the film. Granted, you severely dislike Russell and still think Lawrence is too young. Are there any other complaints you have about Joy? Do you think less of films in which actresses use "old age" makeup? 

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Reader Comments (35)

I get what your saying and it's better for her try n play young to older rather than mismatched younger/older counterparts or older playing younger but AH is where she was miscast despite a fiery role and performance but that role warranted an older pro's experience at being left on the side.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary

I'm just so over both of them. David O. Russell's last two films were wildly overpraised, and Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for doing what any competent actress should be able to do. Then she almost won another for what I thought was an embarassingly amateur performance.

"That Lawrence has acted with such maturity at such a young age, more than merits why in latter scenes of Joy, we see her as a wise figure helping younger women achieve their dreams."

Yeah, I really don't get this. How does using words like "dyke-y," likening mental illness to a set of "weird quirks," and body shaming thin women equal maturity? Then there are the constant references to bodily functions, getting drunk, and "puking." She's 25 going on 12.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Are there any other complaints you have about Joy?

My biggest complaint about Joy is that I found it to be all over the place totally, and not in a good way (Rossellini's performance the best example of that)...which made it very difficult for me to take the film seriously; it was also about 15 minutes too long; Elisabeth Röhm's work was...misguided; when JLaw picked up the scissors and looked in the mirror, I groaned audibly in the theater; etc. etc. Throughout, I kept getting the feeling I was watching the Brett Ratner version of a Wes Anderson film and that made me a little queasy.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Terrific post

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Give me a "M", give me an "ICHAEL, give me a "C".

Come back Michael C!!

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael's Fan

I like Russell and I like Lawrence enough. While Lawrence is good, Joy is a bad movie.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

I get what you're saying here, and I have no complaints with Lawrence, her age, etc. What I have complaints with is the obvious lack of passion and storyline. It almost seemed like a made-for-tv type plot. I didn't get the same vibes that I was given after seeing Silver Linings Playbook...that movie is something special. Joy? Not so much.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

This was my favorite of her D.O.R. performances -- having never fallen for it in the other two films, I'm frankly shocked as this was absolutely the biggest challenge and commitment of the three, but she really does some inspired work. In fact, she's at her most interesting when the film lets her take full command of her age and maturity to lay her opponents flat.

That said, the film is a total mess. The soap opera sequences (both those acted in the TV shows-within-the-movie and in Joy's fantasies where they meld) stop the movie cold -- and the fact that it opens with an agonizingly extended scene curses the film. Why use the real soap stars if you're not at least going to film them doing their thing as they do every day? The mock script was not funny, the stilted performances confusing and unengaging. What went wrong here? I'd rather have seen the kinds of scenes played out in SOAP DISH over what we were served. This isn't the meat of the film -- but the fact that it distracts so thoroughly, so often, and with no pay-off is a terrible shame.

Unlike in his previous films, where the supporting characters can upstage even the leading players with their specificity and bravura, the ensemble doesn't succeed here, at no fault of their own. The characters increasingly function only as a Greek chorus for Joy -- why are they all here, crap -- why is anyone ever in any of the scenes? Why is what they're saying specific to them, to their relationship to Joy, why do they need to be saying it at all? So frequently I felt that DOR was unable to answer these most basic questions. The whole thing felt cluttered, and actors were left in frame almost pleading with their eyes like "I do not know why I or my character is in this shot right now -- please save me."

That Jennifer Lawrence nearly succeeds by way of adjusting her modulation, her speeds, her way of glancing says a lot about the level of this performance. That it's not her most triumphant performance yet speaks to how bad a movie Russell has made around it.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

OMG! Great post.
Why people expect a David O. Russell film to be perfect is beyond me. This film is no where near as bad as the reviews would have you to believe. And Nathaniel himself can't seem to get past JLaw's age and just watch her performance. It's like he and others went in just prepared to complain. And the fact that she was in her 40's for what, 5 minutes of the film and with age make-up was ignored. The movie was good and her acting was even better.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

I just think Jennifer is better than the films O'Russell puts her in.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary

This is an excellent piece. Much of the online commentary on Lawrence's alleged unsuitability for the roles she's played in Russell's films has been glib and frustratingly shallow. And, while Joy is far from being a masterpiece, its ambition to produce something new is admirable - and certain sequences (in particular the QVC section in the middle, where Lawrence and Cooper are outstanding) are as good as anything produced by anyone this year.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterColin K

Meh. Joy is 58% on Rotten Tomatoes so maybe it's just a bad film.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha Nonet

It fell flat for me. I agree with Steve on all of his points. I found out today that in the scene where Joy meets her husband she's supposed to be practically a teenager, and to me she felt the same age as Joy working at the airport. She's told she has to start working the late shift and then... the whole issue disappears. It's choppy, characters are left hanging without purpose, he tried to jam too much into it without explaining things, then let those same jammed in things just fall away without follow up. It tried too hard to do too much. I could have done without the ending, it could literally have been written in text on the screen as Joy walked down the street in Dallas. (And really, kids buying a sled in Dallas? I don't think I ever saw one for sale my entire 30yo life anywhere in the city.) Why did the sister hate her so much when the dad took her with him, practically made her his business partner, while Joy to was expected to do the books (???), but work another job while he spent his time chasing tail??? All of this complicated relationship noise going on, none of the depth of why. It's flat. The abusive father aspect was jarring. The ex husband was one of the few redeeming parts of the film. A lot of the funny, enticing dialogue found in commercials and previews -- what drew me in -- were scraped out. Why? It lost some light in doing that. It's a mess in editing and directing. Jen is okay in this role, but she fell flat for me, too, and I love her in both SLP and AH. So, I'm disappointed and while I don't generally care about her age gaps -- I never truly noticed them before -- this time it genuinely didn't work for me and could have been handled much better, including through hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Yikes to the whole thing. There's nothing Oscar worthy (not even nomination wise) about it.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Excellent post!. I loved JOY, imperfections and all. I was blown away by Jennifer Lawrence's performance...truly a gifted performer.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

Agree with the criticisms here. There is both too much and not enough going on in the film at all times. Tonally flat while being all over the place story-wise. Whole characters and storylines picked up only to be abandoned. A mess. i thought DOR's over-indulgence had reached its peak with American Hustle but I was clearly being optimistic. I won't be seeing the next one.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBD

Mary: you say "that role warranted an older pro's experience at being left on the side", and respectfully I have to ask you, do you think only older women get left on the side by their husbands/partners? There's thousands of very young, single mothers all over the world who might not agree with this. Call me naive, but I never understood why people thought it was impossible for Bale's character to abandon Lawrence's. Because she's a good looking movie star and those never get abandoned?

Michael, Derek, Charlotte and Colin: Thank you! I seriously was getting bored of all the one-note criticism the movie was getting, so listening from thoughtful, articulate dissenters is great!

Jess: Completely agree about the tone, it's all over the place. But ironically I found those to be the film's strengths, it kept pulling me out just when I was starting to get complacent believing I knew where it'd take me. I agree, the supporting characters are "flat", but aren't most supporting characters in fairy tales/soaps "flat" too?

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJose

Is a "lazy criticism" somehow less valid b/c it's said too much? Maybe there's some truth to it then. Besides "Joy" just being a shitty film, you can't suspend disbelief but so much. I get J-Law is the most bankable actress out there right now, but was she right for playing THIS character? No, she wasn't. Not when Russell knew of Amy Adams's existence. Or for that matter, Kristen Wiig, Charlize Theron, Malin Akerman, Amy Poehler, Maggie Siff, even fucking Winona Ryder! If that meant not being a blockbuster (which it wasn't going to be anyways), then that was a risk Russell and the studio should have made together. Maybe then the could have been the small indie-driven film that Mumolo wrote in the first place instead of the eyesore of a film that I just watched.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSamson

I just think it's sad that Jennifer Lawrence apparently can only do superhero series films or David O. Russell films. She's better than both of them.

I would love to see her team with someone else ... maybe she's not getting offered anything really that good? Imagine some of Vikander's 2015 roles played by J.Law. Hmmmm ...

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Just saw Joy today and thought Lawrence was wonderful. Probably her best performance yet.

I think a lot of the critical reception to Joy has to do with people's residual hate for American Hustle. The movie is quite good. Better than The Revenant, The Martian, and the Big Short, all of which are still big hitters in the Oscar race.

December 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCoco

Joy is better than The Martian? Wow, I love Jen but even she knows that Joy is a bad 3rd date and you find a random turd on the floor after doing it while drunk. Don't be suckered into supporting a bad movie.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Schumer


Malin Akerman? Holy god no. Talk about a horrible actress. Yikes!

Am seeing Joy this weekend so this article has piqued my interest. Am surprised at how polarizing this movie has become but glad to read it has some passionate defenders!

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

PREACH it Jose, hear hear.
Fuck off haters and your PC bullshit.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

"...PC bullshit..."


December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Jose -- this is a really good argument and made me rethink my reaction to the movie which i liked but felt was way too unfinished / messy for something that was striving for such complexity in a genre that people are always quick to criticize regardless ("because women -eww!" he said sarcastically) In fact, i found it so messy that only reading really positive things like this and a few other articles after the fact has made me realize how much more David O. Russell was going for then what really comes across.

But that said, filmmakers wouldn't forget about JLaw if she played her age.My complaints about her playing all these 30something women is that she'll have plenty of time to play them in her 30s. It's weird to not see her use her youth to play contemporary young women for example. Because she *won't* be able to do that later on! That was one of Winona Ryder's strengths actually. She felt like such a generation's icon because she was speaking directly to that experience.

I think Lawrence is far less miscast in Joy than she was in American Hustle / Silver Linings which are the chief reason she gets that complaint in the first place (i doubt people would complain about her casting in Joy AT ALL actually if there had been even one role in a David O. Russell picture for which she was the right age.)

But you're right that the movie isn't getting a fair shake. It's interesting at the very least. and has some really wonderful moments (like the whole mop selling section)

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Jose, this is a great piece. I liked Joy, and I loved Lawrence's performance. (The movie is better than a number of the presumed Best Picture nominees... but then again, I am particularly unenthused about the Oscars this year.)

Never fear, Jennifer is working with Spielberg next (plus she has Passengers with Chris Pratt), so you'll all have a chance to see her in different types of films soon.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Nat: But my argument is precisely that she isn't playing "all these 30something women", the last half of JOY is in fact the oldest she's ever played (and they put her in old age makeup and a wig/weird combover to point that out), but there are absolutely no moments in HUSTLE or PLAYBOOK where anyone refers to her as "this 30something lady", or she says "I'm 30something" (if there are I've certainly missed them and I've seen both movies countless times) these are all viewer pre-conceptions based on the fact that she's playing a widow and an "abandoned" woman. Good looking 20-something Oscar winners can also be widows and abandoned women. Or can't they?

Suzanne: Thank you! I loved her too, evidently, and could not agree with you more. I'd rather sit through a thousand messy JOYs than any of the Oscar contenders.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJose

@CharlieG: Whoever said that Lawrence can only do "superhero films or David O. Russell films"...Lawrence burst on the scene with Winter's Bone...earned her first Oscar nom, made her bones in Indie films then became the movie star who can actually fucking act.

Lawrence will soon be workibg with Spielberg, Aronofsky, a comedy with Amy Schumer, not to mention Passengers with Chris Pratt...all very promising upcoming projects with much different artists and I can't wait to see what comes of those films and Lawrence's work in those films.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

@ Aaron: Malin Akerman has done some fine comedic television work, including "The Comeback," "Trophy Wife," and "Suburgatory." She looks great in "Billions" previews too. She sure as hell has better comedic chops that Jennifer Lawrence does. But I'm sure you're good to go in loving "Joy" sight unseen like you're predestined to doing anyway. Whatever.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSamson

The weird thing about Joy is that almost all the criticisms (tonally inconsistent, too many ideas, strange editing and direction) AND all the compliments (strong middle section where she's selling the mop on TV, some performances, a timely, moving story) are accurate. That's how all over the place it is.

And I agree with Nat that Lawrence's age is much less a problem here since the movie is so vague about its own timeline.

In fact, I can't believe no one's talking about the OTHER major age problem in this movie. Virginia Madsen plays her mom (no problem there), Diane Ladd plays her grandma (fine) and Robert DeNiro plays...her dad? Not her grandpa? He's way closer to Ladd's age than Madsen's. That was one of the most jarring things about the first 30 minutes of the movie (among the many, many other things they threw at you in the beginning). I know we're all used to seeing older men with younger women but I thought we were also trying call out this bullshit more frequently, too, right?

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Really enjoyed this movie. A mess--hell yes, but so are all of DOR's movies. Paul Outlaw's comment cracked me up--"the Brett Ratner version of a Wes Anderson film"--but I still loved it (maybe because I'm the only one on the planet who liked After the Sunset AND The Royal Tennebaums is on my top 20 list of all time).

Jennifer Lawrence is a bona fide movie star, with the acting chops to go with that. She lights up a big screen and can hold a movie together. With the exception of Serena, I'm a big fan of her performances, older, younger, and just right.

Thanks for this post.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I don't care about J Law being too young for the part as i think she's very believable in the part, even with her on-screen kids. The main problem in Joy is that O. Russell tries too hard to be original and then never stops to draw deep or loveable caracters, only funny ideas stuck together. The cast is amazing and it's so good to see Rossellini, Laad, DeNiro, Madsen on screen together with (relatively) newcomers like Ramirez or Polanco. But they don't have much to do besides being weirdos (except Laad who's soooo sweet and moving) the audience never connects to. The same can be said of the title character, well played by Lawrence but when the final shot comes i realized i didn't really care about her fate or was moved by her journey.

January 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClément@Paris

Not that Jennifer Lawrence seems more mature than Winona did at her age, but Winona I think had the same problem that Natalie Portman's had, she's so physically petite and delicate and also had a certain innocent demeanour that made her keep getting cast in as young girls. She was still playing teenagers when she was nearly 30 (see Girl Interrupted). This was probably the reason a lot of people didn't really take in her being in the sci-fi actioner Alien Resurrection. Lawrence on the other hand is tall and doesn't have that innocence.

January 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterG

SPOILERS for Joy ahead:

The other random problem with this movie, that to me is another symptom of its erratic laziness, is that the character providing the voiceover narration dies 2/3 of the way through the movie, yet continues to narrate! Yes, there's a fairy tale aspect to the way this story is told, and sure, you could say she's narrating from heaven or whatever because why not? But I still found it odd and jarring.

January 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Am I the only one to have noticed that the trailer includes scenes that are not in the movie? For instance, the wedding scenes and one in a sailboat. Can they be so dumb as to put themselves in evidence?
BTW, it was very nice to see Susan Lucci and Donna Mills in the soap-opera recreation. At least those are the ones I recognized.

January 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I am allergic to American Hustle, so Russell has no goodwill left with me. That said, he did hire Susan Lucci to star in a fictional soap opera so there is still hope left for this guy.

Jose, thank you for all the lovely references and pix of my girl Jennifer Jones. She is my favorite actress and I simply adore her. When is Good Morning, Miss Dove going to be released on DVD!

January 5, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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