(On Cable TV, October 2016) I thought I’d like Joy more than I did. I may not like director David O. Russell’s penchant for re-using the same actors and relying on improvisational acting rather than structured plotting, but he can usually be counted upon for solid enjoyable films, as well as a few moments de cinéma in-between the more prosaic material. At times, Joy certainly plays to his strengths. As an inspirational story of a woman who rediscovers a talent for invention and takes herself from misery to success, it’s the kind of film that ought to work in most circumstances. At time, various snippets of the film make fantastic vignettes. The scatter-shot nature of the first’s first half is held together by a willingness to blur reality with soap operas, whereas the story takes a marked turn for the better midway through as our protagonist is introduced to the world of shopping via TV networks. But other things work against the film: If you’re not as much of a Jennifer Lawrence fan as Russell appears to be, then it won’t be as effective. What’s worse is the film’s surprisingly blunt messaging about pursuing dreams and being inventive: By the third or fourth time the film beat the same message over and over again, Joy becomes actively irritating about its own themes. It’s surprising to see a veteran director like Russell bump up against this kind of on-the-nose scripting—it certainly undermines the rest of the film. By the time the protagonist has a final face-off with business enemies and ex-partners, Joy feels more exhausting than anything else. Despite the good actors and the feel-good message, Joy feels too leaden and too initially unfocused to be as good as it could be.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) For years, rumours abounded about David O Russell’s famously abandoned film Nailed: Despite featuring known actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel), an amusing premise and a decent budget, complex issues during the production of the film made it unravel before principal photography was completed. The almost-finished film languished for years, the director publicly disowning it while investors and producers tried to find a way to complete it. Many, including the director and its stars, had given up hope of seeing it (it’s even featured in the book The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See). But then, something happened and something like Nailed made it into the wild. But that something is not a successful film. Despite a few comic set pieces (a dinner opening sequence, Kirstie Alley as a living-room surgeon, an abrupt tryst that mangles presidential portraits, the Girls Scouts revealed as an incredibly powerful lobbying organization), Nailed! (or Accidental Love, as it’s known in the US) has the feel of, well, an unfinished film. Crucial narrative tissue seems missing or botched (witness the pivotal “nailing accident” scene, crudely stitched together from what looks like other bits and pieces of the film), the script never being able to tie up its loose ends. In other words, it feels exactly like a film that had to be released without the luxury of reshoots and fine-tuning. It’s certainly worth a look for fans of the main actors—Jake Gyllenhaal looks really young as a somewhat naïve congressman wearing too-big suits, while Jessica Biel is often too charming for words as a small-town waitress with a debilitating neurological problem. As a curiosity, it should satisfy film pundits who heard about the film for years without quite knowing if they’d ever see it. But Nailed is not a film that stands up on its own without the attraction of its back-story. I have a feeling that, some day, someone is going to write a tell-all article or put together a revealing documentary about the making, unmaking and remaking of this botched film, and it’s going to be far more interesting than the movie itself.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) As a plot-driven moviegoer, I’m always a bit frustrated when contemplating movies such as American Hustle: While I had a pretty good time watching the film, much of this enjoyment was based on getting to know the characters, appreciating the gorgeous re-creation of the late 1970s, humming at the soundtrack and enjoying the costumes. Plot? Well, there’s some kind of bare-bones caper/con action going on, but it’s not particularly heartfelt, nor all that interesting once everything has gone down. This a director/actor’s kind of film, and so the real joy of American Hustle is in seeing David O. Russell having so much fun with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that all five of them get Oscar nominations. Much of the acclaim is justified: Russell may not be as interested in telling a story than in letting his actors run with the scenery and the costumes, but American Hustle is filled with feel-good energy, tense dramatic confrontations, steady forward rhythm and plenty of laughs. Christian Bale turns in another performance unlike anything seen from him before, while Bradley Cooper carefully undermines his own all-American good-guy image, Amy Adams brings subtlety to a complicated character and Jennifer Lawrence almost makes us forget that she’s roughly ten years too young to play that particular character. Frankly, American Hustle is so successful in what it gets right that it practically minimizes what it doesn’t get so right. It feels scattered, loose, improvisational and filled with badly-tied loose ends. But at the same time, it’s a fun movie and an invigorating viewing experience. Who cares if the plotting isn’t tight enough: At a time where nearly all major cinema releases are excuses for bigger and shakier special effect sequences, it’s almost a relief when a character-based film comes along and ends up being a massive success.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Buzzwords from Silver Linings Playbook’s script read like a bingo card of stuff I don’t particularly care about: mild mental illness, ballroom dancing and rabid sports fandom. So it’s perhaps a relief more than anything else that this dramatic comedy ends up being better than expected. Much of the praise should go to Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who manage to navigate a tricky path in portraying badly-flawed characters that nonetheless become endearing. Lawrence, in particular, portrays a character far beyond her age, rounding an increasingly multifaceted screen persona. The rest of the film’s success should go to writer/director David O. Russell, who doesn’t specialize in easy movies and here manages to deliver a refreshing blend of independent sensibilities with Hollywood A-list actors. The mixture is tricky and doesn’t always work (Anyone bored with sports fandom will find lengthy stretches of the film almost interminable, although Lawrence does get a laugh out-playing superstitious armchair statisticians.) but Silver Linings Playbook does work more often than it should and that’s enough to qualify it as a success.
(In theaters, December 2010) I have no specific interest in boxing movies or family dramas, but even I can recognize that The Fighter is about as good as those kinds of films can ever be. Based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, the film focuses on a period during which family problems and lack of focus are threatening to derail his career. Part of the appeal is the film’s unusual message of reasonably distancing oneself from one’s family in order to succeed –a far cry from the usual family-at-all-costs message in American films. While the film does end up with a happy reunion… it’s suitably nuanced by sacrifices and bad personality traits from everyone involved. Although Mark Wahlberg is credible as a boxer, he doesn’t have much to do dramatically here but portray a solid hero; Christian Bale gets a far more interesting role as a washed-up addict waking up to his faults, whereas Amy Adams throws herself in a role that could have easily gone straight to cliché. David O. Russell’s direction is often documentary-style; more-so at first, and then later on during the boxing sequences. Those boxing scenes are solid enough to actually catch the nuances of who’s winning and why (which turns out to be essential once the protagonist starts winning fight unexpectedly). Given the film’s close ties with the real people it portrays, don’t expect to see Ward’s true story (read the news clippings instead). Still, even if The Fighter doesn’t have any surprises and plays with clichés, its portrayal of lower-class characters is honest, its payoffs are earned and its blend of sports and family drama is satisfying.