Best Actress Contenders: JOY, ROOM, BROOKLYN

But If You Try Sometimes…

Joy was sold to us through an excellent teaser, cut to The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Don’t believe everything you see on TV.

David O. Russell directs and writes the Cinderella story of Joy Magnano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop, a household product that revolutionized QVC and the whole “As Seen on TV” infomercial circuit. When QVC’s first attempt to sell the Miracle Mop on QVC fails, the movie’s Joy demands to go on camera herself, to promote her own product in her regular everyday clothes. Later, when she’s forced to declare bankruptcy, she’s the only family member willing to look for other options; she reads her contracts, she learns her business better than anyone else, and she makes a deal.

The movie feels like a treatise on feminism: a women’s journey from girl to matriarch who begins her own empire. A struggling mom supporting her children and parents can realize her own dreams; no matter the obstacle, Joy is unstoppable. The movie around her, however, feels structurally chaotic. (That chaos isn’t dissimilar from Russell’s American Hustle, but honestly, mops are just less glamorous.) In the first half hour, Russell juxtaposes Joy growing up with humorously overacted clips from her mother’s soap operas. The soap parodies are spot on, but it makes you wonder: are we supposed to see Joy’s crazy life and business as an afternoon soap, to be laughed off?

Even if Russell doesn’t have another American Hustle or The Fighter here, I always enjoy taking in his movies, from the soundtrack to his snappy old-Hollywood dialogue. Of the talented cast, Isabella Rossellini is most enchanting: she’s so strange, and always has been, and she delivers her lines with an almost menacing relish.

Jennifer Lawrence as Joy is, true to form, a natural at wry humor and physical comedy, and (just as true) also impossibly young for the part. Despite her strong work, I don’t think she has the life experience necessary to fully make sense of Joy’s life. Sometimes her expression looks blank, as if she’s waiting for the movie to decide what she should be.

 

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If I Can Make It There…

The first of two major novel adaptations this season, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn was begging for the cinema. The voyage of an Enniscorthy girl across the Atlantic, entering Ellis Island, and settling in quaint 1950s New York looks lovely on film. It helps that another novelist, Nick Hornsby, did the adapting.

Irish director John Crowley and Saoirse Ronan provide an authenticity that makes this especially gentle story click. Unlike many immigrant stories (compare Marion Cotillard’s submission to prostitution in The Immigrant), this story doesn’t linger on the darker, unwelcoming side of America. It’s almost too much of a fantasy world.

But Crowley, to his credit, eschews anything precious. Eilis Lacey journeys to Brooklyn with help of her sister, who stays home in Ireland; and instead of suffering through poor housing or unemployment, Eilis feels homesick, rootless in her new community, without her mother and sister. When she falls for an adorable Italian who’s nuts for her, Eilis must choose between romance with him and the possibility of returning back home.

Ronan has an emotional maturity that keeps tight-lipped Eilis compelling. She keeps Eilis’s inner heartbreak and isolation in check, like she’s constantly searching, never deciding: an outsider in both cultures. There are echoes of an early Maureen O’Hara, beautiful and self-possessed, not easily swayed by the boys.

Now imagine if Martin Scorsese had cast Mia Wasikowska with an accent; the spell would have crumbled.

 

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Break on Through to the Other Side

“You know how Alice wasn’t always in Wonderland? Well, I’m like Alice. I wasn’t always in Room… I lived in a house out in the world…”

We don’t learn Brie Larson’s name for most of Room. To her character’s son Jack, she is Ma. And for Jack, “Room” is the only space he’s seen his whole life.

The movie opens on a Jack’s-eye view of his home: a backyard shed converted into a permanent cell for Ma and her boy, only big enough to fit a bed, wardrobe, and bathtub. Where Emma Donoghue’s novel opens in the five-year-old boy’s voice, the movie (well adapted by Donoghue) delays his childlike fascination. The first shot is a stark pan around the shed, dusky, cramped, unendurable. Only once we’ve absorbed this chilly setting does Jack naively start to narrate.

That novel lived on the tension between Jack’s comprehension and his heartbreaking upbringing. Since the camera changes how we see Room, director Lenny Abrahamson gives more weight to their relationship. When Ma tells Jack about the outside world, Larson is bursting to open up, frustrated her son doesn’t grasp it, anxious he might. It’s a moving scene in a story that’s most effective when it’s just mother and son, the shyly observant youngster Jacob Tremblay hitting it off with the naturalistic Larson.

This could have been some lurid true-crime thriller, but those plot elements come swiftly here; don’t think too heavily about how realistic they are. Donoghue tells the story she wants: one of hope.

 

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