Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez, Dianne Ladd, Elisabeth Röhm, Bradley Cooper
As stated in its opening titles, Joy, is “based on true stories of daring women.” It explores the way a tenacious woman manages to survive and eventually thrive in a world determined to put her in her place. This semi-fictionalised account of the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop makes a point of never actually using the phrase “Miracle Mop,” or even the stating the surname Mangano. Rather than presenting a traditional biopic, director David O. Russell has opted for a comically exaggerated fable celebrating the American Dream and tenacious, can-do spirit.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) was a creative young girl from whom a lot was expected but for whom things haven’t quite panned out. Seventeen years after being named high school valedictorian she is stuck in a hole, providing for her chaotic family – two young children from a failed marriage, a bed-ridden mother (Virginia Madsen) who is addicted to daytime soap operas, and a father (Robert De Niro) who, after recently being dumped by his girlfriend, has moved into her basement which he shares with her aspiring lounge singer ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez). As her father reminds her, “this is not the proper way to be divorced.” It is only her grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), who seems to remember how talented Joy is and wishes better for her. After badly cutting her hand while mopping up a broken wine glass, Joy is struck with an idea for a mop which you can wring without having to touch the head. Convincing her father’s wealthy new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in her invention, Joy is determined to bring her creation to the world but faces strong resistance not only from the business world but from her own family.
Trying to build a grand story around an invention as mundane as a mop would seem to invite a satirical tone, such as that employed by the Coen brothers’ in their fanciful account of the invention of the hula hoop, The Hudsucker Proxy. While Russell is clearly not trying to tell his story straight, preferring a slightly comic domestic melodrama, he does play it with great sincerity, treating Joy’s creation with the utmost legitimacy and dignity.
Across his previous seven films, Russell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mulomo, has shown himself to have an affinity for sharply written female characters, so it is somewhat surprising that Joy represents the first time that he has built a film around a singular female protagonist. With two films already under their belts (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle), Russell and star Jennifer Lawrence are building a strong creative collaboration. As the central character, Lawrence does a lot of the heavy lifting here. But while she gives a strong performance, the character of Joy lacks some of the nuance of the wonderful characters she has previously created with Russell. We see that Joy is downtrodden and unappreciated. We know that she is brilliant in a way that she has not been given the opportunity to show. But what we don’t get is any real insight into her inner emotional life. She is almost one note in her tenacity.
While there is an energy and determination to the film, not unlike its protagonist, that propels it forward, there are also notable problems with its pacing. Joy bounces from scene to scene and idea to idea without quite feeling true. The story leaps forward, dragging its characters with it rather than being propelled by them. Joy is surrounded by a suite of self-involved characters who constantly impede her progress. But unlike Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter where Russell has previously dealt very effectively with difficult family lives, here the characters in this ungrateful family feel more like plot obstacles than rounded human beings. Joy’s sister, played by Elisabeth Röhm, in particular stands out as being needlessly antagonistic. That said, all of the actors have clearly bought in despite the lack of depth to their characters, and Russell has once again found the keys to switch on De Niro.
The high points of the film come when Lawrence is brought back together with her Silver Linings Playbook co-star Bradley Cooper, with the two still sharing great chemistry. Cooper plays QVC television shopping network executive Neil Walker. A pragmatic businessman with an appreciation for the romance of television, Walker imagines himself in the tradition of the great Hollywood studio moguls. Walker takes a chance by putting Joy on screen to sell her own product in what represents a major turning point in Joy’s rags to riches tale, but is by no means her final hurdle.
Joy has a lot going for it: a strong creative collaboration between a lead actress and director at the height of their powers, a solid cast, an interesting idea. There are some great pieces. But something doesn’t quite gel. Not as inspired as some of Russell’s more recent work, the final result doesn’t end up equalling the sum of its parts.
Review by Duncan McLean
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