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Joy, iKnow - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 14, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Joy, iKnow

Joy Mangano was always an inventor at heart, but she was born into the America of the 1950s, where the nearly universal expectation was that a woman's life would be geared toward marriage and children.

For what it's worth, this was not a crime against women, or a sign of patriarchal domination. Every species survives by reproduction, and the species that endure are the ones that promote behaviors that encourage and protect the reproductive impulse.

At least we humans don't have to swim upstream to spawn. (My wife and I didn't, anyway.)

In other words, it wasn't crazy and it wasn't evil that America in the 1950s was centered around reproduction. And in those years, we were darn good at it. That's why we call them the "Baby Boom."

By the time Joy Mangano reached adulthood, women were being encouraged to seek other options -- in addition to, if not instead of, child-rearing.

Joy Mangano had always been inventive and ambitious. As a teenager, she invented a fluorescent dog collar that would help keep dogs safe at night -- but she knew nothing about patents, and so she had the frustration of seeing Hartz Mountain come out with a similar collar only a year later. That was never going to happen again -- from then on, when Joy Mangano invented something, she was going to get patent protection for it and then make sure it got made ... and marketed.

She got a college degree in business administration. She got a job or two -- waitress, airline reservations manager. She got a husband. She got three kids. And she got a divorce -- probably the most amicable divorce on record.

Then she thought up the Miracle Mop -- a mop you could wring out without getting your hands dirty, and whose cotton head you could toss into the washing machine so you'd be mopping your floors with a clean mop every time.

The Miracle Mop was only the beginning. She invented Huggable Hangers, velvet-flocked nonslip hangers that became Home Shopping Network's best-selling product -- more than 300 million by 2010.

She devised a system of luggage, elevator sneakers, a new design for bedsheets, and reading glasses sold in sets of three or more, so you can have one at hand wherever you regularly need it.

In short, she's an industry in herself. Much of her success came from the fact that she trusted her own judgment in designing her products, and didn't have to go through committees to decide whether they were good enough.

But she still had to raise money to make them and find a way to market them. That opened up possibilities for others -- people who saw a lone housewife as easy prey for fraud and manipulation.

And that's pretty much what the producers of the movie Joy were looking at: a story about a tough minded woman who, against a lot of adversity, raised herself from a bleak housewifey existence (Hollywood always assumes that housewives have bleak lives) and became very wealthy.

Heroic-woman stories are potentially a gold mine and Oscar bait, so just as Julia Roberts reveled in playing real-life housewife-cum-legal crusader Erin Brockovich in a film called Erin Brockovich, I doubt it was hard to persuade Jennifer Lawrence to play the part of Joy Mangano in a film called Joy.

But there's a really important difference between Erin Brockovich and Joy. Erin Brockovich was written by Susannah Grant (Pocahontas, Ever After) and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who began his career with Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

Whereas Joy was written and directed by David O. Russell, who also created American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, Three Kings, and Spanking the Monkey.

Why should there be a problem here? Both directors have had distinguished careers, with awards scattered about like Cheerios around a high chair.

Here's the problem.

Soderbergh tells stories that are coherent and clear, filled with believable characters and relationships even when they're part of a movie that is artistically ambitious. Everybody in Soderbergh's movies gives a good performance -- which is a very hard thing to bring about. You actually have to be good at working with actors of every level of talent and experience. And Soderbergh is.

Soderbergh is definitely eccentric. He acts as cinematographer on many of his films, though he uses the pseudonym "Peter Andrews" when he carries the camera. (When he edits his own films, he does so under the name Mary Ann Bernard, so his movies don't look like they were made by one guy doing all the jobs.) (But they were.)

Soderbergh puts you inside the story so there's nothing between you and the characters. Some of his films are better than others -- personally, I think the Ocean's Eleven series got kind of tired by the third outing -- but when you come out of his films, you're usually talking about the story or the characters.

David O. Russell makes movies that never let you forget that a "genius" is directing them. The actors -- and he somehow attracts some very, very good ones -- are constantly being upstaged by the director's absurd, self-indulgent whims. When you come out of a David O. Russell movie, chances are you'll be talking about things the director did.

He has to cast fantastically charismatic actors because anybody with less pizzazz would simply disappear as surely as Kevin Costner vanished from The Big Chill -- because David O. Russell makes movies about how brilliant David O. Russell is.

And, sadly enough, he isn't.

Joy had every possibility of being a wonderful movie. Every plot point could have remained in the film, and it might have been great ... if David O. Russell had any interest in telling stories.

He's like a virtuoso violinist who thinks the audience came to hear him tune his instrument. Yeah, yeah, very clever, very dextrous, but hey, buddy, what about playing the violin concerto that's listed in the program?

Joy is a very bad movie. So bad that it's almost worth paying the price of admission to make fun of how bad it is.

Yet in spite of David O. Russell, and because of two brilliant performances by highly charismatic actors, you accidentally end up caring about the character of Joy and rooting for her to succeed.

There's even a triumphant gotcha scene which would have been so much better if a competent filmmaker had created it -- but it's still good enough, because Jennifer Lawrence has the kind of talent and charisma that allowed Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis to steal every movie they were in.

But David O. Russell almost killed it by dropping it in as an afterthought.

When Joy starts, it looks like it's going to be one of those smug Hollywood "comedies" about how awful middle American suburban families are. And that's what the movie mostly is, though it was clearly written by somebody who was raised by wolves, since the script has no concept of family dynamics even in a dysfunctional family.

I take that back. Wolves have very clear relationships, and somebody raised by wolves could never have done such a bad job of depicting a family.

There is a completely unnecessary and distracting narration by Joy's grandmother -- who dies by the end of the movie but still keeps narrating. This is not a spoiler, it's a relief. (Come on, David O. Russell -- you don't get points for a trick that Billy Wilder used in 1950.)

Joy's grandmother is there so she can give young Joy one insipid speech encouraging her to develop her talents. It has all the power and originality of a feel-good Facebook meme.

In the movie, the rest of Joy's family is nightmarish. Her mother spends all day in bed, watching videotapes of the same soap opera, over and over. Joy's ex-husband lives in the basement, and as the movie opens, Joy's father (Robert De Niro) is discarded by his most recent lover and returns home so that Joy can take care of him, too.

Not for one second is any family member but Joy herself believable. Until this movie, I would have told you that Robert De Niro can't give a bad performance. But in Joy, he is bad. No, I don't mean "disappointing." I mean actively, stinkingly bad.

He comes into the house and the script insists he must immediately start arguing with his ex-wife and then fly into a rage and throw a bunch of stuff on the floor, breaking it. Yeah, those things happen in real families -- but usually the participants look at least mildly interested in what they're doing.

De Niro has all the passion of an abused elephant doing circus tricks. And he wasn't being asked to do anything out of the range of a fine actor.

I think of the brilliant movie A Woman Under the Influence (1974), in which writer-director John Cassavetes created a completely believable family of insane people who welcome their wife and mother (Gena Rowlands) home from the hospital and proceed to demonstrate why she tried to kill herself in the first place. Peter Falk is brilliant as the husband, and because John Cassavetes was a good director, the children gave powerful performances.

Crazy, toxic families can be written, performed, and filmed brilliantly. Just not by David O. Russell or, in this rare instance, Robert De Niro.

But to be fair to De Niro, it's quite possible that he accepted this gig on the basis of David O. Russell's lofty reputation as a genius director, but then realized that the emperor was starkers and this movie was going to stink with great stinkiness. At that point, De Niro may have decided to hit his marks, say his lines, and then go home and spend his money.

The dialogue given to these actors to recite is humiliatingly bad. Many of them try bravely to sound like real people, but only two actors in this movie really succeed.

Jennifer Lawrence does absolutely nothing wrong, and she so transcends the shoddy writing that the audience cares about her character and wants her to succeed -- even though she's stranded in this movie like a prima ballerina trying to dance Romeo & Juliet with the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. (No offense to the monkeys, or the actors I'm comparing them to. Not their fault.)

And then, after hiking through miles of bad writing and pointless flashbacks and other self-indulgent twaddle, all of a sudden we meet Bradley Cooper's character and the screen explodes as he and Jennifer Lawrence take over the movie.

Forget the fact that not a moment of any scene is written to be believable. Cooper and Lawrence perform together with such finesse that during their scenes it's possible to ignore David O. Russell's clumsy intrusions and revel in this symbiotic relationship.

No, it's not a love story; Lawrence's and Cooper's characters know that they're using each other to sell product and make money. But the pas de deux of the actors on the screen is a love story. They are worth watching.

Are they worth the price of admission, or the hours of annoyance, confusion, unbelievability, and tedium that surround their too-few scenes together? I can't decide that for you.

I watched a free screener, so I didn't spend any money on it. I did spend time, and it really was fun to watch the movie with a couple of film-business pros who hated it at least as much as I did, and traded groans and barbs with me as we watched. But you can't do that in the theater.

Yeah, this is best as an HBO movie. Save some popcorn to throw at the screen.

Let me give you one specific example of bad directing. Because David O. Russell is a bad director of actors, the performances of the children are all somewhere between wooden and dead. It is not the children's fault -- child actors need serious guidance, unless they were born Claire Danes.

So there's a flashback to child Joy, intended to show us what a clever, inventive child she was. She has cut out of white paper the parts of a suburban house, including a picket fence. She treasures this paper construct, and keeps it in a box which, later in the movie, we will see again as a heavy-handed symbol of the family-centered dreams of her childhood.

Here's why you know David O. Russell is an egregiously bad director of children. The poor young actress was apparently told nothing more than to "play with" the paper cutouts. But what does "play with" mean? Nobody helped.

The point was to show us how clever and inventive Joy was as a child. But the actress, handed a paper version of a picket fence, keeps trying to straighten it, because it zigzags with folds every few inches.

The folds are part of the design. If you simply set down the fence, the zigzag pattern allows the fence to stand up on its own. It really is mildly clever.

But the actress, not understanding anything about what the character would have intended, repeatedly tries to pull the fence completely taut, so it's straight and has no folds. Then she tries to stand it up. It doesn't work. It can't work. And the character would never, never have "played" with the fence in such an uncomprehending way.

This is where a good director sits down with the child actor and talks about the way these pieces are designed. How the fence can only stand up because of the folds. What sort of game young Joy and her friend would play.

But David O. Russell is too busy being a genius to help his child actors understand anything they're doing. So the girls in the scene flail about with incoherent movements that are somehow meant to represent "playing," while spouting dialogue that we're supposed to think is clever and symbolic, but which is, in fact, incoherent, pretentious, and stupid.

The children didn't write the dialogue. They didn't make the props that they didn't know how to use. They needed help, and they got nothing from David O. Russell. The result is a scene that is so unintentionally funny that we laughed loud enough to drown out some of the dialogue, greatly improving the movie.

Because David O. Russell has accidentally made some better movies than this one, Joy is getting a lot of Oscar talk. And certainly Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are credible contenders. The award they really deserve is one that nobody gives out: The Purple Heart for Acting Well Anyway, When the Script Sucks and the Director Is a Clown.

But if this movie is nominated for a single Oscar, it can be regarded as proof that the Oscar nominators have no idea of the difference between good and bad work.

*

In my experience, there have been only two trivia games that were actually fun to play: Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy! And the reason is quite simple: The questions in both are carefully, even brilliantly written to contain clues that allow you to guess the answer even if you didn't actually know it.

Nobody else ever seems to get this, and so other trivia games come around and prove themselves to be a miserable playing experience because there is no way anybody but Ken Jennings could guess even a tenth of the answers.

It's the difference between asking, "What 'My So-called Life' veteran played the title role in Temple Grandin?" and asking, "What autistic woman designed  humane ways to keep cattle organized at the slaughterhouse?"

The first question allows you to guess the answer if you happen to know that Claire Danes played the lead in the TV series My So-called Life. But to answer the second question, you have to know kind of a lot about Temple Grandin -- and manage to dredge her name up out of your memory.

Purists might say, "But that gives it away!" No, it doesn't. It provides lots of information that helps guide you to the right answer -- while helping to make Temple Grandin's name stick in your memory for the future.

Because of the unguessable-question problem, my wife and I gave up on most trivia games long ago. Yet this Christmas, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the trivia game iKnow?

Let me remove the suspense immediately. The questions in iKnow are on the lame side. But the design of the game is such that it doesn't actually matter how guessable the questions are. And the most well-informed person in the game is not necessarily going to win.

Here's how you play. There's a small gameboard, with spaces where you can place your token in advance, betting whether you'll guess the right answer with one, two, or three clues.

All you have to go on is a general topic, like "Which famous general ..." or "What prominent athlete ..."

So let's say that you place your token on a middle square, claiming that you can guess the answer with only two clues. Then, before any clues are read, everybody has to place a second token beside another player's first token, either to bet that they'll guess right or that they'll guess wrong.

If you get the right answer after two clues, you get two chips. And if you guess wrong, you lose nothing.

But if you bet wrong about another player's answer, you lose one chip; if you bet right, you gain a chip.

It is possible to win the game without ever guessing the right answer to a question -- if you're very good at assessing which other player will be right or wrong at the clue level he chose.

So if, like me, you're a know-it-all who keeps putting his token down on the three-chip first-clue level, and then getting it wrong, you're going to lose. As I did every time.

But the game isn't about winning. It's about enjoying each other's company and having two very different paths to victory.

In this game, it's almost a virtue that so many of the clues are really awful. They go off on tangents that are completely unhelpful in trying to guess the answer.

And then, just to confuse you, sometimes the first clue -- the three-chip one -- is so pathetically easy that it doesn't matter that the other two clues are much harder.

Example: Looking for a pop band, the first clue was, "They got their name from the dog in The Wizard of Oz."

Is there anyone in America so disconnected from the culture that they don't immediately know the name of this band, even if you couldn't have remembered a single one of their songs? (And I couldn't. All right, now I could, what with Google and all. But I couldn't during the game.)

So here we have a trivia game whose design is so good that it transcends some pretty mediocre question writing -- because you can get a lot of points without knowing anything. And yet if you do know stuff, you get to show off by getting things right. And that is the real point of trivia games anyway, right?

A word of caution: The original game, with the board and tokens, comes in a white box; the brightly colored boxes contain nothing but additional question cards. You need the white box version in order to use any of the question cards.

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