While anticipating its release back in November, I awarded Joy’s trailer an uninspiring D on our P/D/F scale. Following the success of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, I assumed that lackluster promotional content must have done a poor job of portraying yet another winning effort by Mr. David O. Russell. Unfortunately, it seems I was quite mistaken.
A cursory knowledge of household entrepreneur Joy Mangano’s climb to home-shopping stardom suffices to guide one’s grasp of the film’s premise. Russell introduces us to our protagonist via a montage sequence of her idyllic childhood as an intelligent, creative, and fiercely independent girl, upon whom her supportive grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) has pinned some ambitious, albeit old-fashioned, expectations of becoming a “strong matriarch” with a perfect family. We are then confronted with Joy’s ugly 1989 reality as an overworked and underappreciated divorcée, simultaneously caring for two young children and an emotionally dependent mother (Virginia Madsen). If that weren’t bad enough, she’s also housing in her basement her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), an aspiring musician, and her disgruntled father Rudy (Robert De Niro). Joy couldn’t be farther from her dreams of being an inventor until an unpleasant experience with broken glass inspires the product that will catapult her to financial security: the self-wringing Miracle Mop. The film follows Joy as she tackles the innumerable obstacles to her success—most of them financial—while navigating the troubled relationships within her own family.
Russell’s latest film suffers from a festive yet unproductive cacophony, from its sound to its characters. The music grows shrill enough at times to drown out the raucous chatter of Joy’s extended family, an impressive feat indeed. Said family comprises an array of poorly developed characters, which I suspect were passably performed by their respective actors though I cannot say for certain given the mere glimpses offered of each individual over the course of the film. Indeed, where Joy quickly loses its footing is in maintaining a supporting cast so large that it becomes unwieldy. Lacking the screen-time to reflect true nuance, otherwise decent actors are relegated into mere caricatures of the people they were meant to play. Joy’s token black friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) and plumber Touissant (Jimmy Jean-Louis) are unceremoniously shoehorned into her world for little conceivable purpose besides diversifying a predominantly white cast. Though Russell goes out of his way to show you Joy is not a woman who needs a man, romantic relationships are also clumsily set up and fleshed out. Lawrence and Ramírez share almost no chemistry, and Bradley Cooper’s role as QVC executive Neil Walker only generates unfulfilled promises of intrigue.
Although most of Joy’s dialogue is as sharp, funny, and naturally-delivered as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Russell, several of the lines are so wordy as to become nearly unsayable, and worse yet teeter on the brink of clichéd and unrealistic. Several scenes, too, alternate between these two vices. When all goes wrong, Joy cuts her hair and sticks it to the man by daring to have a gorgeous, flattering bob. When she finally makes it, Joy becomes a corporate saint, free to bestow her admirable yet humble generosity on budding inventors. The choice to have a dead grandmother sporadically narrate the film is not nearly as effective as Lawrence’s own monologue in the trailer, and the repeated turns to the soap opera Joy’s mother so enjoys are not so much thought-provoking as they are distracting.
My initial fears about Lawrence playing a mother in her thirties proved unfounded, if only because Joy’s motherhood hardly takes up any substantial screentime save a few awkward interactions with her daughter Christie (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) and none whatsoever with her son (no doubt neglected for his lack of thematic import in the film’s feminist message). By casting her in a maternal light as infrequently as possible, Russell wisely allows Lawrence to shine with the full wattage of her indisputable star power, leaving Cooper and De Niro to orbit her like lesser planets in the wake of a brilliant sun.
At one point during the film, Rudy takes responsibility for Joy’s failures, stating dismissively that “It was [his] mistake for making her think she was more than she was.” The same lines might have as easily been addressed to the audience, all of us apparently overconfident in Russell’s ability to turn an unexciting premise and rigid writing into art. Lawrence impressed in Silver Linings Playbook because she, Cooper, and the film itself were collectively charming, and effortlessly so. In Joy, she manages to stand out all the same, though sadly this is mostly in stark juxtaposition to the rest of the film.
Barring the yet unsullied gleam of Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant star, Joy is a real mess of a movie, one that would take a miracle to mop up.