David O Russell is known for both his strong female characters and his whimsical stories. Joy is an example of when the two don’t mix.
Loosely based on Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop and became a retail phenomenon, the film works scene from scene, and shines when some of its actors including Lawrence (nominated for an Oscar) come on screen. However, as a whole, it is a strange approach, almost reluctant to give Mangano credit where it is due even while giving Lawrence as Joy a triumphant walk across a Dallas street in a leather jacket and oversize dark glasses befitting any hero worth his or her gleamy shoes.
Soap opera is a running theme through the film, and Russell goes to the effort of filming his own with real-life TV stars. This TV show is playing on a black-and-white set when the film opens, and includes characters with names such as Clarinda and Bartholomew and everything from rich inheritance and loaded guns to monks who are actually dukes in disguise. Joy’s mother Terry (Madsen) survives on the soap opera, always dressed in an elaborate coiffure, sitting in a darkened room, her finger constantly on the remote.
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Seventeen years later — by which time Joy has grown up from a 10-year-old girl with dreams of “making beautiful things” to a single mother juggling a job, two children and broken plumbing — that same soap opera is still on. The characters haven’t aged, and neither has Terry at least.
Russell, also the screenwriter, portrays Joy’s life as a soap opera that is not without its own melodrama and colourful characters. The only sane voice is of her maternal grandmother, Mimi (Ladd), who narrates the story. Apart from Terry, there is her wannabe-rock-star ex-husband Tony (Ramirez), who continues to live in her basement, and Joy’s father Rudy (de Niro), who hurtles from one failed marriage to another and is currently between lovers and hence sharing the basement with Tony. Then there is Peggy, Rudy’s daughter from another marriage, who shares an openly combative relationship with Joy.
Glamour is added by a widow Rudy meets over a dating helpline. She turns out to be Trudy, or more importantly Isabella Rossellini, who is rich, beautiful, and opinionated.
It’s during one of those strange afternoons where the dysfunctional family finds itself together on Trudy’s sail boat that Joy chances upon the idea of a self-wringing mop.
While it is setting up Joy’s world, the film appears to have an idea of where it is going. It’s when she makes the next leap that it enters more uncertain territory, see-sawing between the same sense of absurdity and bouts of seriousness, and not really mixing the two well. Patents, lawyers, fraud, embezzlement suddenly enter the picture, and the ease with which Joy falls in and out of crises doesn’t do her any credit.
If Rossellini and Madsen’s oddball roles are a delight, Cooper also impresses in the brief time he is on screen as the executive who allows Joy to sell her mop on television.
However, the film belongs to Lawrence, even if she is perhaps a little too polished. As Russell struggles to get a grip on her role, she at least falls in step pretty efficiently — whether Joy is deeply crestfallen or completely overwhelmed.
Directed by David O Russell
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Bradley Cooper, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Isabella Rossellini