Oscars: Will 'Joy' Return Jennifer Lawrence to the Best Actress Circle? (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst offers his take on the just-unveiled third pairing of writer-director David O. Russell with stars Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro.
Jennifer Lawrence in 'Joy'  Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Joy, the third film that pairs writer-director David O. Russell with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, began screening for members of the press over the last few days. The highly anticipated dramedy, which Fox will release nationwide on Christmas Day, was one of 2015's last award hopefuls to be unveiled. Reviews are embargoed for another few days, but general awards analyses are not.

So does Joy have the goods to compete with the year's top guns in the Oscar race? Here's my take.

Russell, who somehow is still Oscar-less, is his generation's master when it comes to creating interesting and multidimensional showcases for actresses — from Patricia Arquette in Flirting With Disaster to Lily Tomlin in I Heart Huckabees to Amy Adams and Melissa Leo in The Fighter to Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle — and Joy is no exception.

His new film is the J-Law show from start to finish, offering the Oscar winner a chance to play an underappreciated everywoman (working-class daughter, wife, mother, friend) — a smart way to play up on her widely celebrated "relatability" — who blossoms into a great success as an entrepreneur, as every woman — or man — likes to imagine they could do.

Having Lawrence's character evolve over the course of generations has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it gives her a lot of different things to do; on the other hand, she doesn't really seem to age much, which is a little distracting. In a lot of ways, the film reminds me of George Stevens' Giant (1956), which tracks a family, through thick and thin, over the course of 25 years. That said, Lawrence's role is not one that Elizabeth Taylor would have played; Taylor was unattainable, while Lawrence's whole allure is that she's the opposite. No, this is a role that would have attracted Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford, two bawdy working-class dames who not infrequently portrayed women who clawed their way past naysayers en route to achieving their dreams.

In other words, Joy is about Lawrence — who is a slam-dunk to land her third Oscar nom for a Russell film (and fourth overall), if not to beat Room's Brie Larson or Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan — even more than her two earlier collaborations with the filmmaker. But this time around, unlike the other two (when she had co-stars nominated in each of the three other acting categories), I'm not sure she'll be joined for the ride by her fellow company members, or even by Russell himself.

Joy is palpably rougher than Russell's earlier films — less polished, more rushed and sometimes stretching to make its point. That's not to say it isn't entertaining or enjoyable and won't appeal to many people, including Academy members; in fact, I think it could ride Lawrence's goodwill to a best pic nom (although it's very much on the bubble at the moment). Rather, it's to say that its star gets the lion's share of the meal and there are only tiny morsels left for the rest of the ensemble — very small and not especially multifaceted parts for De Niro and Cooper, or Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rosselini, etc.

But, keeping in mind that many voters only see a handful of films, and that Lawrence has become a must-see actress, perhaps a rising tide will lift all — or at least other Joy-related — boats.

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