In her third collaboration with director David O. Russell, Joy affords Jennifer Lawrence another strong showcase, and further affirms her that she’s one of the actresses of her generation, even when Russell’s occasionally-absorbing film fails to totally cohere as a whole.
Based very loosely on the life of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, the opening intertitles promise a film ‘inspired by daring women, one in particular’. Our narrator, Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) takes us back to the ‘70s, bringing us up to speed with her eternally unstable family unit. Crucially, they’re never referred to as the Manganos, symbolic of Russell’s myriad divergences from the original draft of the screenplay, with writer Annie Mumolo ultimately only afforded story credit on the finished work. Following a framing device that sees the first of several self-flattering comparisons with Citizen Kane, we flash forward to the grown up Joy’s frenzied existence. Her belligerent dad Rudy (Robert De Niro) and wannabe crooner ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) have just become roommates in her basement, while her emotionally absent mum Terry (Virginia Madsen) rarely leaves her bedroom, glued to the increasingly ludicrous soap opera glimpsed in the film’s hitherto baffling opening scene. On top of her obligation to keep this hapless assortment of infantiles in check, Joy has two children of her own to care for, her smug careerist sister Peggy (Elizabeth Röhm) mocking her at every turn and a thankless, dead-end job to contend with. It’s no surprise that a cough syrup induced nightmare sees Joy surrounded by these inflated figures in the artificial grandeur of the soap opera set.
Russell is very much at home here, inflecting Joy’s family dynamic with his signature fixation on chaos and character, and the results are often wickedly funny. Unfortunately, story falls a distant third behind these two focal points, an issue that plagued Russell’s fun, frivolous American Hustle for many. As entertaining as the squabbling is in Joy’s first act, it’s tainted by a palpable lack of narrative momentum, meaning that when the Miracle Mop is finally conceived around the 40-minute mark, it indicates an about-turn both for our protagonist, and the film itself. No doubt intentional on Russell’s part, Joy’s fledgling beginnings as businesswoman see the pace pick up noticeably as her ascension brings her to the bizarre world of Fox Television’s shopping channel, led by ambiguously bedraggled mogul Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). This section heralds some of the film’s strongest scenes, including Joy’s near car-crash debut television appearance, and Lawrence and Cooper share a chemistry that’s magnetic even in his fleeting, insubstantial appearance.
With Joy having gone deep down the rabbit hole, her big concept finally taking flight, the scene is set for, well…what exactly? It’s here that Russell might regret seeking sole screenwriting credit, a flimsy third act failing to offer any believable conflict or pay off, throwing another seemingly insurmountable obstacle in front of Joy and her family and elevating a previously unseen character to the status of chief villain. As one particularly misguided scene implies however, it’s nothing a big dramatic haircut can’t fix. With its screwball first act and rise to riches second, Joy ultimately feels like two-and-a-half films that never really gel into a cohesive whole, capitulating with a sense of unearned catharsis and ending with an epilogue that only serves to draw attention to the film’s shortcomings. Shallow its conclusion might be, but it does gift us Lawrence’s glorious bob.
Hustle cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s gorgeous 35mm photography instills a melancholy to Joy’s home life while lending a gravitas to her rise to success. Russell’s maximalist Scorsese-isms are also out in force, utilizing Big Musical Cues like Cream’s ‘I Feel Free’ and Springsteen’s ‘Racing in the Street’ in an attempt to inject a sense of grandeur that mostly eludes the material. These stylistic flourishes mean that even when the story isn’t really working, Joy at least looks and sounds great. So while its insubstantial to a fault, Russell’s film is not without its small wonders, not least in the form of its leading lady.
Solely entrusted with toplining a $60 million, non-franchise film in a market dominated by sequels and sure things, Lawrence solidifies her status as star draw, instilling a gripping urgency into Joy’s transformation from sad-sack mother to her own parents to sure-footed entrepreneur. It’s hardly a revelation that Lawrence can carry a movie, but that she can maintain audience engagement even when the narrative falters only confirms that she’s here to stay. The supporting cast succeed in spite of their characters’ collective lack of a complete arc, with De Niro and Cooper offering the most lasting impressions. Joy ultimately showcases the best and the worst of David O. Russell, with some wonderful performances and vibrant, passionate direction battling against a confused story that only occasionally hooks you in.