A surprisingly straightforward and entertaining success story, 'Joy' finds David O. Russell sticking to his own successful formula.
David O. Russell continues establishing himself as a top name in mainstream prestige fare with Joy, albeit in a different direction compared to his last three features. The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle showed off Russell’s strengths when it came to working with ensembles, whereas Joy prefers to keep its focus on one character. That means a more streamlined narrative compared to, say, American Hustle, although Russell’s own formula since his career’s resurgence is still here, even if it doesn’t cast as wide of a net. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Joy is a rather simple and entertaining film, a biopic of sorts that works best when seen as a strange, unique and slightly true success story.
In a clear case of not fixing what isn’t broken, Russell works with Jennifer Lawrence yet again in her biggest role for him to date. Inspired by the true story of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop and other successful household items, the film starts with Joy (Lawrence) bearing the burden of her needy family. Joy’s mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) stays in bed all day watching soap operas, and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) lives in the basement. Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) takes care of Joy and Tony’s two children while she works whatever jobs she can to pay the bills, including helping out the business run by her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) and half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm). On top of all this, Joy can’t shake her own disappointment in not pursuing her dreams of inventing.
It’s only when Rudy starts dating the wealthy Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) that Joy seizes on the opportunity to see her idea of the Miracle Mop through. It’s in this early section of the film that Russell leans on the familial elements that made The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook so successful. Joy’s family oscillates between being a support and a weight for her, with their individual idiosyncrasies either providing a funny narrative detour or an obstacle to Joy achieving her goals. Russell sometimes likes to start a new scene with only Joy before bringing in her family to overpower the proceedings (at one point Russell frames a meeting between Joy and Trudy as a one-on-one before revealing her friends and family surrounding them in the same room). Russell never goes so far as to paint Joy’s immediate family as villains in the story, understanding the complexities of blood relations. For instance: when Joy complains about needing a good sleep, her family’s response is to feed her a bottle of children’s cough syrup while she lays down on the stairs. They’re not malicious people so much as their best intentions do more harm than good.
The specificity of Joy’s family and experiences goes a long way to helping Russell establish that Joy should not be taken as some sort of symbol for the American dream in action. At first blush, Mangano’s tale does come across as an ideal example of working hard to make one’s own success, but in this film’s reality (Russell embellishes a lot of facts, and not enough is publicly known about Mangano to know just how accurate some of the film’s events are) it’s too bizarre and specific to be taken that way. It’s only when Joy winds up at QVC that a station executive (Bradley Cooper, acting like Russell called him in as a favour to take advantage of his and Lawrence’s on-screen chemistry) starts hammering home the virtues of America as a land of opportunity. The fact that these themes get delivered around artificial sets within giant, empty spaces is probably not a coincidence.
If anything, Russell’s film is more of a celebration of individual resolve. Joy faces constant rejection over her ideas, but she never doubts her own instincts about her mop having the potential to be successful. Russell’s script vindicates Joy through a simple and clever move: the narrative always advances because of a decision Joy makes on her own. Her decision to use Trudy as an investor gets the mop made, her decision to go on TV to sell the Miracle Mop herself gets people to buy it in record numbers, and in the film’s anticlimactic final act—an attempt at a climactic confrontation that fizzles out as quickly as it’s introduced—Joy’s acting entirely on her own. Still, watching Lawrence (who turns in another great performance, although her youth gets the best of her in a clunky flash forward) seize control of her dreams from the hands of those trying to pilfer off of them is fun to watch, and Russell’s unwavering commitment to highlighting her self-earned achievements make it all the more effective.