Directed by David O. Russell
(25th December 2015 US / 1st January 2016 UK – Annapurna Pictures, Davis Entertainment, Fox 2000 Presents, TSG Entertainment)
Written by David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini & Virginia Madsen
Synopsis: Joy is the story of the title character, who rose to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.
On paper, making a movie about the creation of the Miracle Mop and its resilient inventor Joy Mangano doesn’t exactly sound like an exhilarating ride. Originally written by Bridesmaids scribe Annie Mumolo (she gets a co-story credit) as a more traditionally framed (read: dull) biopic, Joy was completely rewritten once David O. Russell agreed to take on the project, so that it reflected the frenetic whimsy he has long since established as his trademark. The film opens with the dedication “Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular.”, essentially paving the way to transform a conventional, and unimaginative biopic, into a conventional and unimaginative David O. Russell movie.
Wisely never invoking Joy’s surname, the film immediately plays fast and loose with the details and event’s of Mangano’s life, choosing instead to forge a film that fits in well with the rest of the combustible director’s ouevre. Yet another blue collar dysfunctional family drama, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is surrounded by relations: she lives with her two children and her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), who is obsessed with soap operas and is extremely neurotic. Her father Rudy (Robert De Niro on autopilot) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) both live in her basement, while her doting grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) lives upstairs. All of them are crammed into a single Long Island home, one that Joy slavishly maintains while everyone in her life repeatedly takes advantage of her ceaseless desire to appease everyone other than herself.
Joy‘s first act is shaky and problematic. Certain aspects of her life are highlighted briefly before being ripped away, never to be mentioned again. The various members of her household play as pure caricatures, speaking in unnatural exposition and with a selfishness that often borders on cartoonish evil; all in service of enriching Joy’s character, and illuminating her tenacious struggle. Mimi’s narration in particular is jarring; it feels like it was airlifted from an aborted Disney animation film, and Mimi’s entire role is less of a maternal figure, and more of a fairy godmother, that just appears from the walls when she needs to inspire Joy with a few choice words of encouragement.
That’s not to say it’s all bad; Russell intelligently weaves Terry’s soap opera fixation into the narrative until it invades Joy’s own nightmares, goading her into pursuing her long-suppressed creative desires. We’re treated to a number of flashbacks, some more successful than others. A sequence showing the dissolution of her parent’s marriage as the catalyst for abandoning her creative motivations is powerful, but a flashback detailing how she met her ex-husband feels entirely superfluous, partially because Ramirez and Lawrence do a great job of already establishing their past relationship through their present, resentment-laden interactions. Mimi comments that Joy and Tony are better friends than they ever were husband and wife, and to their credit, you don’t doubt it for a second.
Proceedings pick up significantly once Joy turns her attention to creating her mop, and begins to deal more directly with Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), her jealous and conniving half-sister, and Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), Rudy’s new wealthy widowed lover. Joy has to turn to Trudy for investment, and entrusts the legal aspects of her business to Trudy’s representatives, despite Tony’s concerns. Joy is far more preoccupied with making her product a reality, and fulfilling her grandmother’s prophecy of a bright future, and it is to her detriment that she allows her manipulative family members to ride her coattails. Those familiar with Russell’s previous work will recognise this as a common theme of his (for whatever reason, he really doesn’t trust families), and at times Joy does feel like an inferior version of The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook.
Where Joy truly shines though is in the great performance from Jennifer Lawrence (her best since Winter’s Bone), and the strong cast Russell amasses around her. It’s clear that he is completely infatuated with Lawrence, and in a way it’s refreshing to see him love something that’s not himself. The strongest moments of Joy just allow Lawrence to do her thing, and she has a number of moments that make use of her bountiful natural charisma. The best parts of the film are the scenes at QVC (with a little-too-slick turn from Bradley Cooper as the “adversary in commerce” that gives the young entrepreneur a chance); the scenes where Joy is awestruck by what she witnesses before her, and later when she takes the stage herself, have a powerful emotional resonance.
It’s a shame then that despite Joy‘s strength’s the overall film is marred by inconsistencies. While Russell nails the quieter moments, he often botches the big dramatic landmarks of the film, leaving them feeling like a hollow tease as to what could have been. This is Russell (and coincidentally fantastic production company Annapurna Pictures)’s first family friendly film, and there are times where his own style clashes with the more rounded mass marketable edges.
It’s clear that Joy is designed to be a feminist holiday treat (for the ladies that don’t want to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the seventh time), a celebration of important and powerful women, with men either serving as obstacles, or doting, proud partners, but it feels insincere; more reminiscent of the simplistic “Girl power!” films of old, and not as nuanced to tackle any actual feminist themes. This, coupled with Russell’s dalliances with fleeting magical realism, only to try and lay on a heavily dramatic scene shortly after, feels like filmmaking schizophrenia, as if he’s actively gritting his teeth to fight through his own impulses. Aside from one short scene, Joy never doubts herself or considers the consequences of her actions; she just barrels through, and even in her lowest moment it doesn’t take long before she’s travelling across the country to kick in a nasty man’s proverbial door.
In a way, it feels like Joy is less real as a person, and more of an amalgamation of various strong women, which can certainly be potent, but it decreases the dramatic value when your character is essentially a flawless superhero. We’re told in the opening that she will succeed, and everything will work out, so much of the strife she encounters never feels genuinely perilous. Ultimately, Joy‘s constituent parts fail to coalesce to create an artistically satisfying whole, despite the eclectic score, and some beautifully elegant camera work from American Hustle cinematographer Linus Sandgren, there’s a flimsy emptiness to proceedings that’s hard to shake.
Still, for a mainstream audience, Joy will likely satisfy, and while it certainly sees Hollywood’s most dependable auteur and his muse play it rather safe, it’s relatively entertaining throughout. Largely harmless, but enriched by committed performances, audiences could do a lot worse than give Lawrence, Cooper, and Russell’s latest collaboration two hours of their time.