Joy (2015) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez, Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm
Small role: Susan Lucci, Melissa Rivers, Donna Mills
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. Russell
Review published December 21, 2015
After Inside Out and Room, 2015 is shaping up to be an excellent year for films about women named Joy.
David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) writes and directs this loosely comedic, mostly fictionalized interpretation of the life of Miracle Mop inventor and HSN-regular Joy Mangano (who is credited as an executive producer for this movie), a film as wildly ambitious and imaginative as the heroine it portrays. That also means that it's also a hard vehicle to market, as it's a film about many things and nothing at the same time, which may frustrate some viewers looking for a point to the collection of quirky characters and fanciful situations they're put through. In some ways, it feels like a half-realized work, as its auteur, Russell, isn't afraid of working in the abstract, willing to bring in ideas and let them hang loose without resolution, exploring the various dimensions of his story without worrying about whether it should conform to a particular shape we can identify.
Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Part 2) stars as the titular Joy, whom we meet as a young girl with a head full of interesting ideas on how to make life great. Real life seems to squash those early dreams, opting not to go to college despite being the valedictorian of her high school, and then entering in through a short-lived marriage and raising two kids mostly on her own. Her home life in Long Island is like a kooky sitcom, with a shut-in mother (Madsen, The Number 23) hooked on soaps in one bedroom, a Venezuelan lounge singer ex-husband in her basement (Ramirez, Point Break), a father who comes to her for a place to stay while his own relationship issues get sorted out (De Niro, The Intern), a half-sister who despises everything Joy's about (Rohm, Miss Congeniality 2), and a beloved grandmother (the film's narrator, Diane Ladd, The World's Fastest Indian) who still believes in her dreams to be better than all of this.
Joy still has ideas, but doesn't know where to begin, until she brainstorms a newfangled kind of mop contraption that allows its user to never have to hand wring, and it's easy to throw its head in the wash to re-use. Mortgaging the house and borrowing the rest of the seed money, Joy decides to make this dream her first reality, but soon finds that there's just not much interest in purchasing a product from someone who doesn't have a company willing to back her up to get to those skeptical consumers. Doors close, until she makes it to QVC, who are willing to give her a shot if she's willing to make a financial lea of faith that would break her financially if it fails.
Lawrence is as magnificent as you'd expect, even if she always seems to be a bit too young for the parts that Russell throws at her, this time in her first lead role in one of her three films with him. She sells it anyway; she's that good of an actress. Russell decidedly keeps Joy as an off-kilter persona, but so resolute and steadfast, it's easy to take her side and root her on to success. Joy is a dreamer, but her actual dreams bother her, to the point where she finds it hard to sleep for fear she'll dream again. Dreams are a desire unrealized, but real life holds her down, so there's little joy to be bad in Joy's propensity to dream. If the can't fix her dysfunctional home life, Joy's determines she'll fix her home, all by herself if necessary, and she'll come up with the ideas to make that just a little bit easier.
Russell, who dedicates the film to the daring women of this world, sees Joy as the embodiment of the "We Can Do It!" propaganda poster, rolling up her sleeves with gumption, showing she can come out on top in a world that thinks women should stay out of the ideas room where the big boys play, and remain dreaming in a domestic setting. His film seems a bit noisy and disjointed at first, rarely taking the time to lessen its snap-quick tempo, but eventually, the film finds a certain footing once Joy starts to focus on getting out of her current life mess. Joy has to learn the hard way that the secret to success in business isn't just having an idea, but it's learning how the game is played, as no one can do it on their own. Sometimes you have to sell ideas to those semi-crooked players who hold the keys to the financial kingdom as skillfully as you have to sell the products themselves to the consumers. And then, you also have to sell it to yourself that you have an idea that can, will, and must prevail, if only everyone could see how ingenious it truly is.
Rough around the edges, but some may find Joy interesting because of it rarely colors with the lines. Still, traditional moviegoers will likely be perplexed at seeing mainstream stars go through the motions in a story that David O. Russell is determined to let stand as offbeat and slightly surreal in its tone. When it comes right down to it, the real story of Joy Mangano is quite mundane, even if impressive, so it's to Russell's skill as a filmmaker that he can find a way to make the story of one dreamer feel like a fairy tale come to life. Joy isn't as quirky as I Heart Huckabees, but it's possibly his second most unorthodox film in his career, which will likely make it seem like a bit of a misfire when this doesn't ignite the box office (its enigmatic marketing campaign says almost nothing of what the film is actually about), but will find that audience that truly finds it something worth cherishing over time.
©2015 Vince Leo