'Joy': Film Review

Another lively American hustle.
12/25/2015

David O. Russell's decades-spanning comedy stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, who invented and personally marketed the Miracle Mop.

For sheer wackiness and functional dysfunctionalism, the family in the venerable farce You Can't Take It With You is given a good run for its money by the clan at the center of Joy. David O. Russell's third film in a row to have the good fortune of starring Jennifer Lawrence is nominally a story of perseverance and tenacity over ridiculous odds, but spends much of its time examining the paralysis caused by the myriad vicissitudes and irrationalities of its madly neurotic, self-involved characters. That the film itself is nearly as chaotic as the clan it examines can either be regarded as an admirable artistic correlative or a crippling defect, but the splendidly dexterous cast ensures that this goofy success story, which could just easily be titled American Hustle 2, keeps firing on all cylinders in the manner of the writer-director's previous few outings.

When a movie runs through four credited editors, it's usually a sign that something's amiss, be it in pacing, narrative coherence, tonal control and/or balance among diverse elements. All of these issues apply here, but the combined energy, determination and talent of Russell and his actors blast through the underbrush of unlikely plotting, far-fetched coincidence and abrupt personality about-faces to keep the audience on the high road of willing disbelief that all this could be happening (it is based on a true story).

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The spirit of the great writer-director Preston Sturges, and his both jaundiced and appreciative view of the extreme fluidity of American success and failure, seems to hover over Russell's shoulder as he lays out the roller-coaster life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence) across four tumultuous decades. The big turning point in Joy's life, and her major claim to fame, is her invention of the self-wringing Miracle Mop, which she launched and personally hawked on the QVC telesales network in the 1990s. Many, if not most filmmakers (Sturges included) would have had great satiric fun with this, but for Russell her achievement is as legitimate and challenging as any other in life — including, one might propose, making a film; the same degree of tenacity and belief in oneself is involved.

The outer trappings of Joy's life could easily have been the stuff of pure farce, but Russell, more maturely and ambitiously, pushes his enterprise in the direction of human comedy. Life, as it's always portrayed in his films, is messy and complicated, and rarely more so than with Joy. A hard-driving mother of two, she resolutely presides over a family that includes two men, her father Rudy (Robert De Niro), a hard-headed old-timer who runs a garage, and ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a Venezuelan would-be Tom Jones-style singer, both of whom now live in the basement of a modest home that also includes grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), in whose eyes Joy can do no wrong, mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), a princess who has retreated into a non-stop emotional addiction to daytime television soap operas, and sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), whose aggressive negativism casts a pall on all of Joy's ideas.

Joining the mix before too long is an Italian woman of means, Trudi (Isabella Rossellini), who takes up with lifelong romantic Rudy and provides a welcome addition of grace and propriety.

As the pic flashes back and jumps around in time, Joy is established as a doer and creator who fills any vacuum created by others' inaction, a necessary trait if anything is to get done in this otherwise short-falling family. “I don't need a prince,” she insists at a young age and, indeed, she gets along with Tony famously once she gives up expecting anything of him as a husband. At a certain point, however, after one too many setbacks and disappointments, Joy momentarily collapses in apparent defeat. “What happened to us?” she pleads. “I feel like our dreams are getting farther and farther away.”

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Only from this low point can Russell start to burrow into his favorite theme and begin to construct another of his tales of self-reinvention. Once Joy fashions her homemade mop, a simple device with the key component of a 300-foot cotton loop that's easily wrung out without a watery mess, she obsessively but rationally pursues her goal of marketing it. Kicking her men out of the basement, she makes her prototype, asks Trudi to invest (a very fine scene), hires a small army of Latinas to assemble the product and begins her sales efforts by demonstrating them in a Kmart parking lot, which doesn't last long.

More productively, she worms her way in to see QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who amusingly tells of having been hired by Barry Diller to build the business, provides a nifty inside view of what the network's protocols are and ends by unexpectedly asking Joy the question she couldn't have even dreamed of hearing: “Can you make 50,000 of these mops by next week?”

Although this may seem like the end of the rainbow to Joy, it's actually the dark side of the moon, as myriad new obstacles are shoved in her path to success and self-vindication. The developments in the second half begin to illuminate what ultimately make the film seem somewhat arch and artificial, which is that things keep bouncing from the highest highs to the lowest lows with little in between. And it happens across the board: Both of Joy's parents flip from utter misanthropy and negativity to the vicinity of bliss on the basis of new and highly unlikely romantic entanglements, Neil shuttles between being hero and villain, and a mystery man toward the end similarly exists only in extremes. Life may be a roller-coaster, but the repeated sudden changes in fortune that repeatedly turn lives upside down in both directions come to feel increasingly artificial in the telling.

As is always the case with Russell's films, the actors are all wired, completely on their games. Once again, Lawrence rises to the occasion and takes charge, bringing to life a character who fights the fight for several decades and comes out on top. She reliably brings grit and conviction to her characterization, but what's missing is the illumination of an inner emotional life, even if it were just the acknowledgment that Joy has put a hold on romantic fulfillment. Both of her parents have been accorded this dimension, credibly and even touchingly in the case of Rudy, and very amusingly, if not entirely convincingly, with Terry. If Joy has ruled out amorous prospects, it would be good to know more about her attitude.

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De Niro moves beyond caricature to provide a full-bodied portrait of a skeptical man whose one great strength is an inextinguishable romanticism. He's wonderfully matched by Rossellini, who has seldom been this warm, appealing and self-possessed onscreen. Both Madsen and Ladd are a hoot as distinctively eccentric women, and Rohm is unsettling as a reliable purveyor of negativism. Ramirez engagingly reveals his limited character's sweet heart and soul, while Cooper smoothly handles his quicksilver corporate showbiz character.

West Dylan Thordson and David Campbell's punchy score is complemented by some sharply chosen musical samplings, which only partially papers over the pic's many jumpy and abrupt transitions as it lurches through the years and the characters' wildly changing life circumstances.

Producton: Fox 2000 Pictures, Annapurna Pictures, Davis Entertainment Company, 10 by 10 Entertainment
Distributor: Fox 2000

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Maurice Benard, Donna Mills, Jimmy Jean-Louis
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriter: David O. Russell, story by Annie Mumolo, David O. Russell
Producers: John Davis, Ken Mok, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, David O. Russell
Executive producers: Matthew Budman, John Fox, Mary McLaglen, Joy Mangano, George Parra, Annie Mumolo, Ethan Smith
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Judy Becker
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Alan Baumgarten, Christopher Tellefsen, Tom Cross
Music: West Dylan Thordson, David Campbell
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu

Rated PG-13, 124 minutes

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