In a run of much-nominated end-of-year releases - Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, now Joy - the writer-director David O. Russell has established himself as contemporary Hollywood's pre-eminent mad scientist, smashing together diverse actors as though they were particles and then standing back to observe the results. There may be no better time for these films to land in cinemas: their screwy Alka Seltzer effervescence offers a potential cure for seasonal indolence, although a small but vocal tribe of critical naysayers insist the chaos Russell fosters makes their temples throb all the more - that the films are like treating a headache by prescribing aspirin cut with Viagra. Anyone heading to see Joy on its official release date of New Year's Day should therefore be warned to proceed with a measure of caution.
The new film builds on the findings of Russell's previous experiments, where the women - Jennifer Lawrence in Playbook, Lawrence and Amy Adams in Hustle - gave off substantially more light and heat than their male equivalents. Accordingly, Joy opens with a declaration of feminist intent ("Based on the true stories of daring women"), but it's only when Robert De Niro shows up on the doorstep of the house Russell's heroine, working single mother Joy Mangano (Lawrence again), shares with her soap-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen), grandmother (Diane Ladd) and crooner ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) that something takes hold.
All of a sudden, everyone's jostling for space. Screaming rows break out. Crockery gets smashed. At some point in his career, Russell evidently decided to channel the wild, howling energy of that much-circulated clip of him losing his rag with Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees into his movies: the result is a controlled instability that ensures even Joy's domestic scenes proceed with a messiness familiar from so-called real life. It's a radical approach to what turns out to be a biopic of sorts. Rather than offered a linear birth-to-death, rags-to-riches progression, we're instead dumped slapbang in the middle of a period when the film's subject had a lot of stuff going on.
Joy's first half is all byways and sidebars, switching focus with daring regularity to highlight, by way of examples, De Niro's adventures in the senior dating pool, Madsen's frequent spillages, and the mating habits of the cicada. By the time Ramirez's Latino house band are centre screen, regaling us with their cover of "Mama Told Me Not To Come", it's become clear Russell is a filmmaker for an age where the word "random" has assumed a new currency, but there's a higher purpose to the director's randomness here: he intends to show how both Joy, and the revolutionary product she brought to market were products of this woman's circumstances.
Where American Hustle cast Lawrence as a wild child - frequently tipsy, perilously undomesticated - Joy deploys her as a vital fixed point. At every stage, our heroine proves the most sensible presence within this overstuffed household, and her innovations - first a retractable dog collar, then the world-changing Miracle Mop - invite interpretation as ways of limiting or cleaning up the extraordinary mess breaking out around her. Certainly, the actress's directness of gaze proves the film's most effective weapon, cutting through the bluster, keeping everything in focus. Never mind mops, this Lawrence could sell you on the health benefits of heroin, a Black Eyed Peas compilation CD, the need for a fourth Hunger Games movie, anything.
Elsewhere, the rapt attention Russell's camera pays to QVC bigwig Bradley Cooper's expression, turning from condescension to fascination as Lawrence's force of nature blows into his office, should be enough to prove beyond any doubt that this is a director who adores actors. It's tribute enough to his off-the-hook methods that Russell should have nudged De Niro out of his late-career grey period and back in the direction of something like life, but Joy keeps throwing new performers, with entirely new valences, into the mix: Isabella Rossellini as De Niro's date and Joy's chief benefactor, Dascha Polanco from Orange is the New Black as Joy's best friend, Jimmy Jean-Louis as a passing Haitian plumber with R&D notes of his own to convey. From the off, there's always someone new on this doorstep: Russell is now making movies as though he were throwing America's biggest houseparty. (BYOB.)
Of course, this'll leave him open to further noise and public-order charges, yet Joy feels more precise in its scripting and cutting than American Hustle before it. A line at the end of one scene invariably sets up some development in the next; the extravagant froth and lather of those earlier films gets sloughed off, lest anybody mistake Joy's story for soap. Instead, for all its bustle, Joy follows the Cooper character's lead in taking this one woman, her struggles in the (male-dominated) workplace, and the quiet, undernoted revolution she wrought in the kitchen entirely seriously: you could approach the result as a lesson in how one might emerge from the stresses and strains of blue-collar life with the kind of good idea that builds empires.
In dramatising what is essentially an industrial process, Joy proves far more in thrall to the American dream than was the largely satirical Hustle; enthusiastically handing its heroine a shotgun around the halfway mark as a means for her to let off steam, this is Russell's most Republican movie, which may account for the brisk and businesslike framing. Yet it's just possible Russell had to pitch Joy's story as a business story to get the suits to swallow it, for what we also have here is the most profoundly feminist tale of self-actualisation the studios have let slip for some while. That Joy should be such a leftfield good time on top of that, no matter your gender, is all bonus.
(MovieMail, December 2015)
Joy screens on Channel 4 tonight at 11.15pm.