Editor’s Notes: Joy is currently out in wide theatrical release. For more on Joy read Russell’s Ode to Joy, and the American Dream.
Anyone who needs proof that one-time Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence can do no wrong only need look to Joy, her third go-round with writer-director David O. Russell (American Hustle, The Silver Linings Playbook) for conclusive, if not completely indisputable evidence. Lawrence can elevate mediocre material into near greatness. She can also elevate near great material into unqualified greatness. In short, she can sell practically anything to practically anyone. Unfortunately, her third collaboration with Russell isn’t the charm (far from it, actually). Despite Herculean efforts, Lawrence’s efforts ultimately prove futile. She might elevate every scene, but that does little to counteract the chaotic muddle and tonal messiness of the based-on-a-real-story Joy. It’s all the more disappointing given the talent behind the camera, Russell and original screenwriter Annie Mumolo (getting only a shared “story” credit here) and in front of the camera (Lawrence, of course, but also Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, among others).
Lawrence can elevate mediocre material into near greatness. She can also elevate near great material into unqualified greatness.
An empowerment narrative/fable, especially one based on a true story, seems tailor made both for Lawrence’s seemingly limitless talents and fall/winter awards season (the late December release is obviously intentional, if overly optimistic and ultimately misguided), but Russell seemingly can’t get out of his own way, segueing from a grounded, naturalistic story (Joy’s battle against institutional, cultural, and personal forces a to become a full-fledged, prosperous entrepreneur), her bedridden mother’s (Virginia Madsen) obsessive, surreal soap opera fixations (meant presumably to signpost key themes about gender roles and expectations, not to mention the opiate-like effects of mass media, maybe), to her difficult, contradictory relationship with her semi-supportive father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), her oddly supportive ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), a failed singer permanently camped out in Joy’s basement, and a cartoonishly broad satire of consumerism exemplified by a small-time, TV shopping network in the early 1990s. From drama to comedy to farce to satire and back again, often in the same scene isn’t a formula for artistic success, but the exact opposite, ironic given the subject matter of Russell’s film.
From drama to comedy to farce to satire and back again, often in the same scene isn’t a formula for artistic success, but the exact opposite, ironic given the subject matter of Russell’s film.
Russell depicts Rudy as an aging Lothario (he’s in love with the idea of being in love, rather than all the hard work that follows), apparently using his fading charms to win over a wealthy widow, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who becomes Joy’s financial backer when, harried and hounded by a lifetime of failure and a dead-end job, Joy hits upon her fortune-making idea: a time-saving, self-wringing mop she dubs, with only the slightest hint of hyperbole, the Miracle Mop. Coming up with the idea is only the beginning. Joy has to turn the idea into an actual, sellable product, but even with a prototype in hand and Trudy’s money behind her, she hits another obstacle: She can’t get it into big-box stores. Selling the mop outside those big-box stores nets here a visit from the police, leaving her even further in debt than she was before.
But since Russell wants to make a film about the myth of the “American Dream,” not to mention Joy Mangano’s real-life story), Joy gets another, second chance, this time a meeting with a television executive, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who doesn’t quite become enamored with Joy (thankfully, there’s no hint of a romance), but admires her personality, drive, and eventually her salesmanship when he gives in and allows her to sell her own invention on air. In no time at all, a TV star is born and the Miracle Mop becomes an overnight, money-making sensation. Of course, the story doesn’t end there. A patent-related issue threatens to scuttle Joy’s fortune and her future. Her family, including her beloved father and always jealous half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), turn on her, but there’s no obstacle Joy can’t overcome after a minute or two of self-reflection and/or a pep talk from Walker or one of her other supporters. She’s meant to be an example of what a woman, any (white, blonde, attractive) woman can do with enough energy, imagination, and willpower.
Failure isn’t acceptable. It’s not even an option, tangible or otherwise in Joy. It’s not part of the myth of the American Dream, though, of course, Joy’s journey never really feels like a struggle against impossible odds, just a series of obstacles, nuisances and annoyances to overcome at regularly timed intervals before the inevitable victory over her personal and professional foes (a smiling, beaming Lawrence in shades and a leather jacket strutting toward the camera, a cliché of American triumphalism if ever there was one), only to be replaced by an unnecessary flash forward to a more business-friendly Joy, enjoying all of the financial and status perks of capitalistic success, presiding over her mini-empire from behind a large wooden desk in her palatial home, Godfather-style, dispensing wisdom and support for other potential entrepreneurs.
Failure isn't acceptable. It's not even an option, tangible or otherwise in Joy. It's not part of the myth of the American Dream, though, of course, Joy's journey never really feels like a struggle against impossible odds, just a series of obstacles, nuisances and annoyances to overcome at regularly timed intervals before the inevitable victory over her personal and professional foes.