I must disclose at the outset that I am a tremendous Jennifer Lawrence fan, and she was a shining star in this movie. However, I am faced with judging a movie as a whole and not simply the performances therein. I think that Jennifer Lawrence is deserving of her Oscar nomination for Best Actress for this role, because she was the only salvageable part of a rare misstep by David O. Russell. This is Lawrence’s third collaboration with the director, and it has the ambition of Silver Linings Playbook but is undone by script and tone problems.
For fans of David O. Russell films (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, and American Hustle) what makes them so thrilling is the bravery of the writer-director’s storytelling ability. As the plots make bold shifts in tone and the characters spout highly scripted but thoroughly quotable dialogue, audiences seemingly hold their breath to see if he can get to the finish line without having these beautifully crafted world collapse.
Russell hopes for a Jennifer Lawrence hat trick with Joy, but unfortunately, this time his delicate balloon pops. It’s a movie about a lower middle class single mother rediscovering her creativity, her fight not to be exploited by the world of commerce or her dysfunctional family, and about the birth of QVC and the show-business of retail sales. However, Russell (who shares story credit with Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo) doesn’t quite figure out how to tell these stories at the same time, or even back-to-back, resulting in a pile-up of characters and incidents and emotions that just never works.Joy is a fairy tale where character development is painted in broad-strokes, leaving virtually everyone but the protagonist as exaggeratedly evil. Lawrence stars as Joy Mangano, who is credited with putting home-shopping channels like QVC and HSN on the map with her inventions and entrepreneurial spirit. As a young girl, we see her creating imaginary worlds out of nothing but paper, and her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) tells us that she is destined to do great things.
But 17 years later, she has a dad, Rudy (Robert De Niro), who leaves the family for another woman, and a mom, Carrie (Virginia Madsen), who retreats to her room and her soap operas. Joy skips college despite being valedictorian of her high school class to help her father’s car repair shop as an accountant, and she winds up marrying a Tom Jones wannabe, Tony (Edgar Ramírez), with whom she has two kids then divorces but lets him continue to live in her basement. Joy is an angel surrounded by cartoon idiots who screw up their life and her’s at every turn. Unfortunately, most of them are related to her.
Her deliverance is coming in the form of her own invention: the Miracle Mop. Everything you need to know about this film can be found in the ridiculous scene which inspires her invention. Scrubbing at a stain on her hands and knees while her father, his rich new girlfriend, and other family members banter and ignore her efforts, Joy suffers cuts on her hands when she wrings out a mop filled with glass shards. In that moment, she’s a cross between Cinderella cleaning up after her spoiled sisters, and the stereotypical infomercial caricature exasperated at the difficulty of simple household tasks. All that’s missing is her throwing her hands in the air and exclaiming: “Isn’t there a product to fix this problem that I’ve created through my own foolish behavior?”
Joy uses nothing but cheap plot devices to lead us down our protagonist’s path on the road from rags to riches. Even accepting that Mangano’s family members are a pack of inept, shameless, ungrateful stereotypes who speak only in cliches and platitudes, the film never tells us what Joy gets out of her relationships with them. People are willing to deal with a lot, but they still must have some type of overarching motive. It is confusing because Russell usually excels at digging into why people stay in painful and fruitless relationships, and what happens when they hit their breaking point. I’m thinking particularly of The Fighter, where Mark Whalberg’s character loves his family despite all their issues and tries to be loyal, but he reaches a point where his loyalty doesn’t make sense and realizes that in order to succeed he must step out from his toxic family situation and make a name for himself.
However, we are not presented with a protagonist who is human enough to have a breaking point. Once again, this is like an old silent film where the sheriff wears a white hat and a bright shining star and the bad guys have painted on mustaches and all wear black. She becomes a successful company owner, but never questions other people’s right to smash her possessions, treat her as a servant, or blame their idiotic choices on her. Lawrence beautifully shows us her despair, determination, rage, hope, and depression throughout the film, but overall, the film never seems to be telling a story, so much as it’s stringing loosely connected unrealistic incidents together to force our central figure from her place at the bottom of life’s barrel to the top.
It’s only Lawrence’s charisma and empathy that makes this fictionalized version of Mangano seem remotely real. Lawrence somehow makes this mess of a film work for her and turns it into a vehicle for another Oscar nomination. There are certainly few other actresses working today that could make these two consecutive scenes work. Joy first has a breakdown deciding that all her dreams are fruitless and she will always be a silly little girl Then, the very next day, she outsmarts her competitor and marches down the street like she owns the town. To make matters worse, this very drastic emotional transition is reduced to an apparently self-empowering haircut.
This u-turn is just one example of Russell zooming from one idea to the next in a way that reduces everyone in the movie into bizarre ciphers who exist only to move the plot along. And don’t forget that these are actual people, not simply fictional creations! For instance, we spend several scenes getting to know Walker (Bradley Cooper), the self-aggrandizing manager of the budding QVC network, only to have him abruptly disappear until the end of the movie. We know that Joy’s ex-husband Tony has moved from selfish jerk to loyal supporter only because the narrator tells us. In fact, this is the kind of movie where pointless characters turn up to do and say the exact same thing in multiple scenes and where the narrator dies but still keeps narrating! We are not allowed to empathize with Joy because this film is so loosely rooted in reality that it means nothing to us that our heroine hits rock bottom, because she fixes everything in the very next scene.
This is a rare misstep for Russell, who in the past has sold us on all kinds of stories. This feels like Russell was attempting to make another version of The Fighter with a strong female at its core who seeks to break free from the weak and petulant family that continues to drag her down. However, unlike Joy’s remarkable invention, I wasn’t buying it.