Joy Review

Posted: December 31, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Joy-PosterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

The David O. Russell comeback has been defined by one success after another. The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook were both much loved Oscar winning films, and while a backlash has developed against American Hustle, that film was still nominated for a ton of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I’m a fan of all of these films, particularly Silver Linings Playbook, and couldn’t wait to see what he would do after American Hustle. I was pretty disappointed when I read that his next project would be a film about the woman who invented the miracle mop. I can’t say the story seemed like one that needed to be told, nor did I have any personal interest in the tale. Still, O. Russell is too talented a filmmaker to ignore, and with his usual cast returning, Joy remained a must-see.

As a child, Joy Mangano was full of creativity and ambition, however the dysfunctionality and overbearing presence of her mother and father (Virginia Madsen and Robert De Niro, respectively) have led to Joy’s own life largely stagnating. As an adult, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a single mother trying to raise two kids while allowing her parents to love with her, along with her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez), who is living in the basement. Frightened by the personal trap she sees herself falling into, Joy vows to find greater success in life. Her first step on this path is the Miracle Mop, an invention of hers which allows for greater flexibility than other mops and is also self-wringing. On her path to make the miracle mop a success, Joy must contend with financial setbacks, personal difficulty, and her own family’s meddling.

Joy fits very seamlessly within David O. Russell’s 2010 oeuvre. The fluid camera movements, the eclectic (if rock heavy) soundtrack, and eccentric characters brought to life by high energy performances have been staples of his work this decade and they continue to be in Joy. The film also shows Russell’s fascination with dysfunctional families. Much attention is given to the fractured relationship between Joy’s parents and the effects it has on her, along with Joy’s competitive relationship with her half-sister. These typical Russell elements are handled well and the relationship dynamics are interesting, but I can’t help but feel all of these pale in comparison to the director’s other works. Joy has a strong soundtrack for example, but it does not permeate through the way it did in American Hustle, nor are there specific cues as memorable as what was seen in that film or Silver Linings Playbook. The family dynamics are pale when compared to the lunacy of the family in The Fighter, or the emotional depth in Silver Linings Playbook. I was also a little disappointed by the way the film seemed to forget about Joy’s mother. Early on she plays a big role, in fact it’s pretty strongly implied her life of being shut away watching soap operas played a crucial role in pushing Joy to achieve more in her life. However she eventually just fades into the background, along with most of the family members who aren’t her father.

I don’t want to imply that O. Russell’s direction is bad because that isn’t the case. His musical and visual choices are good, and there are certainly moments of inspiration to be found. If nothing else, his talent in working with actors is still seen in the strong cast. This is clearly Jennifer Lawrence’s movie and she makes the most of her titular role. Lawrence is, of course, a commanding screen presence, but the real power of her performance comes from how she subtly handles the character’s arc; from struggling single mother to successful business woman. Joy did not find her success merely through ingenuity, but through persistently fighting and refusing to give up. Another Russell regular is Robert De Niro, who also gives a memorable performance as Joy’s harmful, though not exactly malicious father. Isabella Rosselini also gives a very strong performance as an elderly woman who plays a crucial role in getting the Miracle Mop off the ground. Veteran actresses Virgina Madsen and Isabella Rossellini also give very strong turns, as does Édgar Ramírez. Really, if any performance is lesser here it’s probably Bradley Cooper. He isn’t bad, but his role is a little insubstantial, to the point that the actor feels wasted.

I suppose I should circle back to my original concern that the story here just wouldn’t be very interesting. Did Joy prove me wrong? Not really. At the end of the day, this is a pretty typical rags and riches story, one that doesn’t deviate from what we’ve come to expect. There is some attempt to help give Joy its own identity, notably the narration from Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) and the scenes depicting the soap opera Joy’s mother watches, but none of these elements really matter and actually end up being more of a distraction. One thing the film does have is a strong feminist undercurrent. Joy is, of course, a self-made woman, and the emphasis on Joy’s mother’s devotion to mindless soaps brings to mind the traditional, domesticated roles of women. Even the fact that Joy’s creation is a mop, a tool typically conceived of as for women’s work, ties in to feminist readings. Russell is clearly aware of this layer as he opens the film on a title card commenting on the hard work of women. This all adds a thematic layer to Joy, but it doesn’t really improve the story.

Coming out of Joy, I had the feeling David O. Russell’s hot streak was beginning to cool and it seems the critic community agrees with me. The film has received much more mixed reviews than Russell’s last efforts and while it still has awards buzz, I don’t think it will be the major player The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle were. Still, I do think the critical indifference to Joy is a bit unearned. This is a good movie, it’s just not one of the year’s best or most interesting, which is what critics now expect from Russell. Personally, I’d still give Joy a modest recommendation. Despite a pretty standard narrative, Joy is a very well-made film and Lawrence’s strong performance alone is probably worth seeing the film for.

B-

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