I dislike everything about Jennifer Lawrence. Except her acting. But only her acting under the direction of David O. Russell. Can’t stand her in those “Hunger Games” bores. Loved “Silver Linings Playbook.” That modest little movie cost $21 million, which is just $6 million more than Lawrence was paid for the title role in “Joy,” her second film with Russell, which cost $60 million, but shows no increase in production value. It’s just that the salaries of the cast went up after the first film grossed $132 million. “Joy” has already made $51 million, and has only been in theatres since Christmas. I’d say Lawrence was well worth her $15 million.
What is it that makes Lawrence so good? For starters, no matter what you think of her, her character wins you over and you stay on her side no matter what happens. He enemies become your enemies. Her obstacles become your obstacles. And her victories become your victories. Back in Hollywood’s studio era, this ability to win and maintain the audience’s empathy was taken for granted. Today, however, an actor makes one wrong move and loses the audience. And when the audience stops caring about the lead character, they stop caring about the movie.
But this isn’t the whole of it. At least when Russell is directing. Whatever he asks her to do, she does it. No more, no less. For me, this is what great acting is all about. The ability to carry out a director’s instructions. If the director is good, then the performance will be good. This is why she sucks in the “Hunger Games” movies. Both Gary Ross and Francis Lawrence are horrible directors. They tell her to do stupid things and she does them. Can’t blame her. She is only following orders.
David O. Russell is not only an excellent director, but his writing is impeccable. He has the rare gift of maintaining his originality even when building his story on the most primitive structures. You might resent him for going down such over-trodden paths, but you have developed such a concern about the characters that you forget that they are imperiled simply because such obstacles are required to interrupt the arc of the story at regular intervals. In the old-fashioned movies, writers were skilled enough to work such devices seamlessly into the plot. Today, most writers fumble any attempt to even put a twist into a predictable line of dialog.
Lawrence isn’t the only viable acting presence here. Bradley Cooper is as charming as he is devious. He and Lawrence make such an ideal screen couple that I wish they were paired more often. Diane Ladd is a gas as Mimi, Joy’s grandmother, who narrates the semi-true tale of the housewife who becomes a millionairess by selling her patented miracle mop on the Home Shopping Network. “Joy” is a populist fairy tale, reminiscent of Frank Capra’s best work, that has enough heart to convince a dyed in the wool socialist that there is still hope for a rebirth of laissez-faire capitalism, and that realization of the American Dream is still within the grasp of the average person.