Dec 29, 2015
Jennifer Lawrence is the Robert De Niro to David O. Russell's Martin Scorsese. A muse, a great collaborator, and a splendid actress, she is the main reason to see this unevenly textured comedy about business hardships. Written by Annie Mumolo and Russell, it chronicles the rise and fall and rise of a woman named Joy, loosely based on the real Joy Mangano, who invented a self-wringing mop.
Russell makes movies in which the funny coexists uneasily with the difficult, and what I liked best about Joy is that it dwells on the tribulations of a business venture. It's her family tribulations that feel forced. Joy lives in a small home with her two kids and her depressed mother (the hilariously lost Virginia Madsen), who spends years in bed watching soap operas. In the basement lives her estranged husband (Edgar Ramírez), whose dream in life is to be a crooner. Her difficult dad (Robert De Niro, at his boorish best) is left on her doorstep by his third wife, who doesn't want him any more. Why she endures them is anybody's guess. Even though the actors are all on their game, this feels like a bad underground sitcom.
An unnecessary voiceover narration provided by Diane Ladd, who plays Joy's grandmother, explains that Joy was always an inventor and a doer as a child, and so when she finds herself struggling as an adult, she wonders whatever happened to her that she did not fulfill her potential. Unfortunately, we don't get to see it, but we do get some hints: the dismissiveness of an insensitive father and the demands of motherhood and divorce. Basically, what women have to go through when they want to do more in life than load clothes into a washer. Joy attempts to be a satirical feminist fairy tale but it is too disheveled to be a satire and too undisciplined to be a fairy tale. This makes it interesting, even if it's not quite successful.
One day, as she's invited on the yacht of her dad's rich new girlfriend (Isabella Rosellini, having great fun as a villainness), a spill occurs that Joy has to clean up, and she has an epiphany that leads to the invention of her non-humiliating mop.
This is where the movie gets its thorns. Rarely do we see American movies that show the agonies of running a business. In fact, rarely do we see movies where women run a business. Here we see what Joy struggles against: jealousy, incomprehension, negativity, distrust, inexperience, contempt, shady people. A plague of reasons conspire against her as she tries to make her venture work. Her family is a hindrance, she is out of her league, but she is not a quitter. The dramatic ups and downs, many of them contrived and telegraphed too soon, require a focused and transparent actress, and Lawrence comes to the rescue. She is magnetic and totally genuine. The scene where she finally gets to peddle her product on QVC is Oscar material. Joy freezes in front of the TV cameras, but then she hits her stride and finds the conviction of someone who truly believes in her product with the energy and desperate need of a saleswoman. As in all her performances, Lawrence is capable of signaling vulnerability, backbone and maturity, and of making her arc -- her passage through time and experience -- feel completely real. Never a false note in her.
Bradley Cooper appears briefly as the boss from the channel that orders product from her, and they have such good chemistry that their scenes are the best in the movie. I liked the frustrations mounting on Joy simply because it is refreshing to see them. When she loses all hope, she tells her little daughter that it is not true that opportunity is there for the taking. That there are people and circumstances that make sure that opportunity is snatched away from you and crushed. It's a bitter pill to fail so transparently in front of your child. A clunky fairy tale with little sugarcoating, Joy is a movie about the frustration of not being able to do something creative that you know is good, where the system that keeps telling you that you can be and do whatever you aim for is the same system that is completely indifferent or even poisonous to your struggles when you try. Failure is what feels most real in this movie. Even if if the fairy tale conceit is not fully worked out, Russell once again summons a uniquely contrarian tone and energy to his prickly comedies. Joy is a feel good movie that is not a feel good movie at all, which is fine.