There’s a scene in Joy in which we see the childhood of the eponymous heroine, Joy Mangano (played as an adult by Jennifer Lawrence), and how it set her up to become the person we see for the majority of the film. In her family home, her means of escape from her humdrum reality is to build things, and in this sequence, we see her construct a farmhouse and some of its surrounding land with nothing but scissors and plenty of sheets of paper. It’s a key moment, showcasing not just the impressive talent of the child actor playing young Joy, Isabella Crovetti-Cramp, but also introducing us to Joy’s self-proclaimed superpower, the ability to not need a prince to live with her in this farmhouse.
Unfortunately, this scene also sums up the film’s flaws very succinctly. Like the paper house, Joy shows off plenty of potential and is an undeniably creative endeavour. However, it’s also often rather flimsy, and can be flat and lifeless when it really counts – in the case of the house, this is when it’s easily ripped up in a parental argument, but for the film, these problems become evident whenever it tries to land a major emotional blow.
Too odd to feel real, but not weird enough to be truly memorable, David O Russell’s latest effort is an ambitious experiment, but one that doesn’t quite pay off, despite some really great individual moments. Taking quite a mundane story – Joy Mangano invented a series of helpful household items and got rich from selling them on QVC – it’s understandable that Russell wanted to eschew convention, but it’s at the expense of a real emotional connection. Anyone going in seeking some sort of spiritual successor to Silver Linings Playbook will come away disappointed, despite the shared cast. Where Playbook and, to a lesser extent, American Hustle, were very sincere films, Joy never lets you forget that you’re watching a piece of fiction, and suffers as a result.
That isn’t to say that this experimenting never works, and there are plenty of flashes of brilliance in Joy to keep you engaged. The camera work and the sets are always fantastic, often conveying an air of magic realism and making spaces feel both open and claustrophobic at the same time (rooms and buildings seem to have the same sort of confusing geography as they would in a dream). Joy is also as funny as anything Russell has ever done whilst, boldly, considering the consequences of those laughs. Parental disapproval before a marriage and an awful wedding speech are both classic comedic tropes, and whilst they are hilariously executed here, we also see just how harmful these situations really are, leading to tears and long-term resentments.
When we first meet Joy, she’s stuck in a dead-end job and ridiculous housing arrangement. Her dad (Robert De Niro) has just moved into her basement, where her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) already resides, and her mum (Virginia Madsen) lives with her too, refusing to ever leave her room, ignoring everyone else’s problems in favour of constantly watching a surreal soap opera. In Joy’s nightmares, she lives in the soap world, each of her toxically dysfunctional family members taking a role. It makes for some intriguing individual scenes, but very little seems to come of it. The only beacon of normality in the house is Joy’s grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), who aids with looking after Joy’s children and narrates the story.
After slicing her hands whilst mopping up a broken glass on her dad’s new girlfriend’s (Isabella Rosselini) boat, Joy has something of an epiphany. She can’t keep carrying on like this, and she sees returning to her creative, inventive side as the best method of escaping her current life. Inspired by the desire to avoid having to wring out mop heads after use, she draws up and builds a prototype of what will go on to be the Miracle Mop, an enormous commercial success for both her and the QVC channel.
When she first gets on the set to sell the mop on live TV, she inevitably freezes, and has to be brought back to reality by a phone call from her best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco). Whilst this feels pretty clichéd and tired, the rest of the scene is great, as Joy gradually finds her voice as she sells more and more units, with Bradley Cooper’s high-level QVC executive Neil Walker paceing jubilantly in front of her. When her slot is over and the rotating set pulls her away from the limelight, the relief and happiness is palpable, one of the few emotional beats in the film that really lands. Russell and Annie Mumolo’s script zips along at a good pace with plenty of wit, but Joy’s relatives are so unlikable that, combined with dreamlike atmosphere, it’s difficult to feel anything when the family starts coming apart.
Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is excellent, moving effortlessly from frazzled mum to iconically cool deal-maker to regal sales mogul. One scene in particular, where she walks out of a hotel having outmanoeuvred a rival and strides down the street with her sunglasses on, is positively transformative, and it’s all done through body language. From the way she walks to the way she takes her glasses off, it’s obvious that this is not the same Joy from the film’s beginning, and it’s mightily impressive work.
In fact, Lawrence manages to save this scene from itself, with Mimi’s narration laying this idea of change on way too thick, and cheapening the moment. It seems doubtful that Lawrence will push very far into the Oscars, given the lukewarm reception to the film overall, but this is definitely one of her best performances yet. When her casting was first announced, there were cries of ageism (she’s around 10 years younger than the real Joy was), but given how much of the film she carries, someone of Lawrence’s star power was clearly necessary.
One of the main values that David O Russell has as a director is his penchant for give roles to Robert De Niro that aren’t actively sad to see. As Joy’s dad Rudy, he’s clearly energised, bouncing between raucously funny and being a truly horrible father. His resentment of his daughter’s newfound success is so vile that you wish your anger could pass through the screen and affect him. Joy is still Lawrence’s show, but De Niro’s support is always welcomed. With such a fine cast and so much imagination on display, it’s a real pity that Joy can’t put all its pieces together into one impactful whole.