Joy: That Ain’t the Way to Have Fun, by David Bax
I wish I could pretend to be one hundred percent certain how I feel about David O. Russell’s Joy. We critics do that sometimes, I know, but mostly we’re trying to convince ourselves as much as convince the reader. In this case, though, I continue to struggle. On the one hand, Joy feels like an improvement over Russell’s last film, the self-satisfied and bloated, yet somehow still ephemeral, American Hustle. Then again, that’s just because Joy is only slightly less self-satisfied and bloated (yet still somehow ephemeral). It may prove to be the kind of eccentric shaggy dog that I’ll revisit occasionally in the years to come. But, like too much of Russell’s recent work, it feels like a collection of scenes in search of a movie. Some of those scenes are stunners, though.
Joy tells the story (or part of it) of real life entrepreneur Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), who invented the Miracle Mop and sold it on television in the early days of QVC. Her family and friends, consisting of grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), father Rudy (Robert De Niro), Rudy’s girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) and bestie Jackie (Dascha Polanco), are as much a help as a hindrance on her path to self-made glory.
Russell juggles this cast, which also includes Bradley Cooper as QVC president Neil Walker, with his standard screwball pacing. He entrusts his actors with mouthfuls of dialogue that they often volley back and forth as if they’re going to miss their train if they don’t get outta there. Meanwhile, his camera pushes in nosily or swoops inquisitively. It’s difficult to find footing in this world because unreal dream logic always seems to be creeping in from the edges, often in the form of the soap opera characters Terry watches, whose behavior is stilted and heightened even by the standards of the genre.
That disconnect is well-motivated though. Russell’s structuralist approach reflects Joy’s psyche, especially in the early going. The home in which she lives, the same one in which she grew up, is compartmentalized like the various realms within her mind, with her mother, father and ex-husband occupying clearly defined and separate spaces. And when Joy’s daughter makes reference to her bedroom, we intrinsically understand that it is the same bedroom in which we’ve seen the young Joy in flashbacks.
Joy was a promising, talented and intellectually innovative young girl whose life was yanked off track when her parents split up. The aforementioned flashbacks crash in at all times and angles in the movie’s first half, illustrating unsubtly how Joy’s present is fractured by her past. Once she finds focus – after cutting her hands on shards of glass while ringing out a mop – the narrative becomes more straightforward. Unfortunately, it also becomes less compelling. Joy’s second hour essentially consists of a series of obstacles to success that recede as quickly as they pop up. To their credit, at least, the cast is on point even when Russell is not; a special shout-out goes to Röhm, who is so perfectly vindictive as the undermining Peggy, you will want to laugh as much as see her get her just desserts.
So Joy is a mess, sometimes intentionally so and oftentimes not. When it all lines up, though, it can be great. Take, for instance, the scene in which Cooper’s Neil walks Joy through the QVC operation. In long, flowing takes, his monologue seesaws from informative to aspirational, from showing her how the turning stage functions to waxing about the promise of America. When it all comes together, with Melissa Rivers playing her mother selling tacky necklaces while the phones begin to ring in cacophonous waves, he’s like a conductor in front of an orchestra of consumerism. It’s easily the weirdest thing to make me well up during any movie this year. There aren’t nearly enough scenes of that caliber in Joy but maybe, in a year or two, it will be what I remember. Maybe I’ll be able to recommend the film with more confidence at that time. Until then, sorry.