Ever the stylist, auteur David O. Russell manages to create arresting images in Joy, a fictionalized biopic loosely based on the life of Miracle Mop creator Joy Mangano.And amidst all the needle drops, frantic tracking shots, knowing voiceovers and even the casting of Robert De Niro, it becomes clear that Joy is the movie most heavily indebted to Martin Scorsese that Russell’s made yet.
The influence is understandable as Scorsese has inspired generations of filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson being his finest current acolyte), but Joy ends up being less of a homage and more of a hollow copy, aping Scorsese’s stylistic quirks but bringing little of the heart and empathy that elevates both filmmaker’s best efforts.
Yet whatever shortcomings the movie may have – and it is a shaggy dog that suggests longer breaks between movies serve the notorious perfectionist Russell well – none can be leveled at star Jennifer Lawrence. She shines here as Joy, a resourceful inventor and harried mother who would eventually break out of her working class roots by creating a self-wringing mop. Joy’s last name is pointedly never mentioned, as the opening title card makes clear this is “inspired by” real people but not beholden to the details. Instead of a straight biopic, Joy is more of a celebration of strong women and American gumption, especially in the face of long odds.
The movie opens (after a brief and twee flashback) with an extended sequence that establishes Joy and her large (and largely incompetent) family that orbits around her. Divorced and raising two young kids, Joy labours as an under appreciated airline clerk whose ramshackle home also houses her shut-in mom Terry (Virginia Madsen) and lounge singer ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez). Her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) is the strongest and sanest positive influence in her life, while her newly divorced dad Rudy (De Niro) and half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) simultaneously need Joy’s help with their local auto shop while resenting any higher ambitions she might have.
After a particularly stressful day threatens to break Joy’s resilient spirit, she has a cough-syrup induced fever dream that illuminates the ways in which her many responsibilities hold her back while arriving at an epiphany – she used to endlessly create things as a child and needs to make shit now in order to rise up. Inspired, she uses her daughter’s crayons to sketch out what will become the Miracle Mop, and the movie takes its first steps towards the creation myth of an American entrepreneur.
Russell isn’t shy about stacking the odds against Joy, as time and time again she runs afoul of shady partners or lack of funds that threaten to derail her wild ambitions. Aided by executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), she eventually gets a chance to peddle her mop on the newly created QVC shopping channel, but the opportunity quickly turns to ash. And when she does start selling units, her supplier raises prices exorbitantly, effectively killing profitability.
I like the minutiae of business that Russell (who wrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo) dives into here. Joy and Neil are business partners and eventual adversaries, and the movie admirably doesn’t try to force a romantic connection. It’s too busy focusing on just how hard the bootstrapping American ideal of making something from nothing can be. It’s been said that the road to success is paved with a thousand or even a million no’s, and Joy hears every one.
That’s the part of Joy that works, while the constant strife and turmoil of her family life (many of whom actively root against her) is less successful. Joy’s mother is a burden, but her sister and father are outright spiteful and it’s a wonder that she tolerates their presence. At one point Joy’s sister wedges her way into the business and fucks up so royally that I wanted to shout at the screen. De Niro as Joy’s dad Rudy isn’t much better, as his irascibility never becomes near as likeable as it did in Russell’s superior Silver Linings Playbook. When Joy’s ex-husband and grandmother show kindness and compassion, it’s like a breath of fresh air amidst the toxicity that seems to exist in other aspects of her life.
So yes, the roadblocks pile up to a nearly absurd degree as even Joy herself becomes more of a stand-in for Russell’s thesis than a well-rounded character. When her long awaited moment of triumph comes the movie seems to think it’s a stand and cheer moment, but it’s more of a relief after the gauntlet of misery that she’s gone through. A truly weird ending (along with an overly clever voiceover conceit that was also used in the recent Tom Hardy movie Legend), doesn’t help matters as Joy blends the surreal (Melissa Rivers portraying her late mother Joan) with the mundane (contract disputes). It’s a mixed bag that certainly has an inspiring message (and Russell’s technical excellency makes it easier to overlook many flaws), but Joy, the movie and the character, remain an enigma surrounding by shrill caricatures to the end.
Directed by: David O. Russell
Runtime: 124 minutes