Yesterday’s Christmas leftovers put between buttered toast and devoured, it was out for a day at the movies to catch the last releases of the year. A more different double you’ll struggle to find yet similarities abound if you look hard enough.
Both are films made with an eye on Awards Season that don’t seem to have that buzz or momentum now we’ve reached their release. They both, on paper, should have more mainstream appeal than the standard Oscar fodder they are competing against (In the Heart of the Sea is a big manly seafaring epic with Thor in the lead and Ron Howard back with a blockbuster budget and effects team. Joy sees box office darling Jennifer Lawrence in an appropriate vehicle surrounded by the cast and director of previous hits). They are both true stories given a fair bit of Hollywood spit and polish so the narrative outshines the facts. And if you dig even deeper both follow a hard working protagonist trying to make their fortune in a harsh capitalistic environment where misfortune and failure are expected and directed at them.
I can’t be the only one that really, really wanted In the Heart of the Sea to work. The scale and cost required for these water set historical actioners means studios only seem to forget how risky they are and only greenlight one every decade if we are lucky. An account of the true tale that inspired Moby Dick promises some large scale re-enactment of 19th century sea faring life. The kind we have not enjoyed since Peter Weir’s big budget Master and Commander film that merely broke even, so did not be come a planned franchise 10 years ago… Though I wish it had. That film had benefited from a made to measure lead in Russell Crowe and an eye for the dynamics and practicalities of being a crew on the open seas. Ron Howard has felt wasted on Da Vinci Codes and Grinches since the turn of the century and this appeared a tailor made opportunity for him to return to the quality ensemble pieces he made his name on, often with a focus on tribes and cultures within their work place (see Gung Ho, Backdraft and the underrated The Paper). His magic touch with such material is still lost as In the Heart of the Sea just doesn’t gel as an experience – often as there seems no flair or care in the storytelling.
The plot basically follows some whalers who kill the creatures for their oil yet come up against an orca who thwarts them at every turn. Some attempt to give the half dozen crew members we focus on some backstory is made but once we hit the water the character work vanishes, the peril becomes repetitive and some of the bigger horrors (the destruction of their vessel, cannibalism) lack depth and impact when they should be the most engaging elements of the film. In fact, whenever we hit dry land the film seems to return to a stronger earlier draft abandoned to get more shots of haggard eyes spotting sea spray, climbing rigging or repeating orders. It’s the kinda film that lingers on exhausted men, wasted to the bone by their endeavours, unable to move their lips to even speak… who a minute later are springing up to their feet, brandishing harpoons in another pointless attempt to kill the stalking whale.
I struggled to feel anything but poetic justice for the whalers’ plight. By the third act I would have much preferred to be actively following the whale’s quest for revenge rather than the sailors’ fate at his destructive fins. Possibly this was mostly inspired by extreme close ups from strange angles of the goliath’s eye, as whenever the camera stays with Moby Dick’s inspiration it ignites sympathy and awe as a modern viewer for the endangered wildlife. Anthony Dod Mantle’s framing is often captivating – the wide shot of the ship at sea have Turner-esque quality, while those tight shots expose the grotesqueries of nature but from a storytelling point of view their painterly nature took me out of the action too often.
Already a failure at the US box office, which might be put down to the lack of market for period naval thrillers, but in all honesty In the Heart of the Sea is not a concept that is very likeable in subject matter or delivery even if you do like a good old anchor and sail epic. The blame for its losses could lie at Chris Hemsworth’s door. He makes a fine Thor and I enjoyed his lead performances in Rush and Blackhat (he often reminds me of a young Harrison Ford with his simple but direct charm which can be no bad thing, surely?) yet without double checking on Google I still struggle to tell he and his brother apart after a dozen movies now which really cannot be a good indicator that the public has embraced him either. Outside of Marvel, his choice of project seems to be solely old school, boy’s own adventures by respected directors on the slide. Admirable but if he wants to be able to open a movie on his name rather than as a comic book character, then he needs to build up audience demand and awareness that just is not there for him right now. Surely there is some role that plays to his strengths that doesn’t entirely rely on his current lack of draw to open it? Young Han Solo, perhaps? As it stands, Hemsworth just is not a bankable enough name to open a film about men in dirty tunics killing intelligent mammals, he needs a lead role in something that captures the zeitgeist fast otherwise he’ll be Christopher Reeve or Timothy Dalton rather than a Michael Keaton or a Sean Connery. Until then he should avoid projects with subject matter that is so risky, in waters so rarely tested.
Someone who has captured the movie ticket buying public’s hearts and minds is Jennifer Lawrence. She, in Joy, manages to do for the dormant ‘Woman’s Picture’ genre what a less proven talent like Hemsworth just cannot for a ‘Sea Epic’ – SELL IT. Joy is a film with weird pacing issues, lack of dramatic clarity in its resolution and, if we are being harsh, doesn’t really stretch Lawrence’s acting abilities all that much. What it does do is express our protagonist’s failures and achievements far more clearly and involvingly than the action film ever manages. Which is mental as a Miracle Mop is no less obvious a Macguffin than whale oil, a broken home in 90s America a less obviously harsh environment than the middle of the Pacific. Yet where Howard and Hemsworth fudge their set pieces, David O Russell and Lawrence imbue the hunt for a mop’s creation and ownership with more defined structure and power than the bigger budgeted film. Whereas whale oil just has a cash value, the Miracle Mop’s conception and eventual victory both mirror and tie into a young woman’s rediscovery of her smothered potential.
Rediscovering self worth and bankruptcy should not be as pressing issues as killer mammals and starvation yet fuck it… I cared a lot more about Lawrence selling 50,000 mops on a home shopping network before she loses her house as the stakes were relatable, the sequence delivered with vim and invention and the lead performance carried the full weight of vulnerability and likability from previous on and off screen association. You want Joy to survive and thrive, you want Jennifer Lawrence to (eventually) win. You can’t put a price on a film that offers us that, however quirkily framed and jarringly rhythmic.
Films about women balancing relationships (with romance often a background concern) with personal success were all the rage in the 1940s and 50s. Bette Davis cranked out a Women’s Picture four times a year. When did they go out of fashion. Working Girl? I’m struggling to think of a good one since In Her Shoes and that felt like a blip. Yet this year we have had two cinematic highlights from this dead genre in Joy and even more so in Brooklyn. Joy in particular though should be shown to all teenage girls as a fable for not to accepting the limited role society wants to keep them in. It is a hymn to the tough realities of female empowerment, expressing the strength found in succeeding on your own terms. O Russell ably illustrates the battle to create your own freedom, whether financial or in terms of personal responsibility.
Joy finds captivating drama and humour from the sad reality that not just submitting to the safe, predetermined trap of family above all else will unfortunately involve opposition from the people you love. Rewriting the American Dream by acknowledging the failures and adversity on the way, making clear that those likely failures often mean most will quit when faced with the overwhelming odds against being a success. And reminding us that we should be the sole authors of our own dreams. Not matriarchs, patriarchs, soap operas, QVC or shop windows. It also features the first consistently decent dramatic performance from Robert De Niro since Casino / Ronin. And if that does not spear you and drag you into the multiplex then very little will.