'Joy' (2015) is too busy to find its core, features usual suspects
David O. Russell returns with his usual suspects — Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who co-starred in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and “American Hustle” (2013) — for another hyperactive, improvisational dramedy in “Joy” (2015). The film is loosely based on the real life story of Joy Mangano, the New Yorker mom turned inventor and entrepreneur known for her household designs such as the self-wringing Miracle Mop and no-slip Huggable Hangers.
In true Dickensian fashion, Joy must juggle her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) who’s addicted to soap operas, her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who still lives in her basement, her nihilistic father Rudy (Robert De Niro) who feeds on his children’s failures and her two children, all while trying to construct her mop empire from scratch. Her house resembles a retirement home for her family, who fester in self-consuming pity. They haunt Joy like waking nightmares and use her as life support to sustain their worthlessness. They are the one thing Joy cannot reinvent, and her tenacity to create seems to stem from the immutable human detritus around her.
Since childhood, Joy’s imagination has been her beacon steering her through the maelstrom of divorces, caregiving and debt. Buoyed by the American dream rhetoric of her grandmother Mimi, Joy pursues her Miracle Mop idea after cutting herself sweeping up a shattered wine glass. Through grit, humiliation and a sizeable donation from Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rosselini), who brings a parodic ferocity to Joy’s Roald Dahl-esque family, Joy lands a pitch at home shopping network QVC (that’s quality, value and convenience, as the film emphasizes.)
When Joy finally escapes the claustrophobic intensity of her home life and enters the QVC temple of consumerism, the film lights up. Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) gives Joy a tour around headquarters, a veritable Willy Wonka factory of products, revolving television stages and dolled up hosts (including an early Joan Rivers, played by none other than her daughter Melissa Rivers). In this marketing Mecca, Joy becomes the high priest, breaking sales records with her maternal, personalized pitch for her product, the Miracle Mop. The incandescent dynamism of this sequence enlivens the film’s lugubrious cynicism like the QVC equivalent of a prizefight — much like Russell’s 2010 film, “The Fighter.” However, it feels like a commercial break, as after Joy is hurled right back into her oppressive, rock-bottom milieu.
It is this manic turbulence that makes the film a QVC revolving stage, constantly circling around the same moments of triumph and failure at an increasingly dizzying clip. Joy’s business only exists in extremes; either she’s smashing sales records or filing for bankruptcy. Russell’s distinctively frenetic camera and narrative feel ill-suited and lurid, leaving no time for the film to breathe. One moment Joy is exhaling in a factory bathroom, the next she is behind bars for invading the factory’s plant. The centrifugal force of Joy’s demise throws the film off its axis of Joy’s success and relegates her ultimate triumph to a rushed footnote of a denouement. Unfortunately, the end feels like where the real story could have begun, with Joy at the top like a regal godmother, running her empire with the magnanimity of a Mother Theresa.
Much like her Oscar competitor Cate Blanchett in “Carol” (2015), Lawrence commands the spotlight with her precocity and elan, so that time away from her feels like time lost. Yet Russell has typecasted her as the desperate, volatile, yet tenacious young woman in his last three films. Much like Rudy, Russell has pigeon-holed his cinematic daughter (granted to much acclaim) until her performance feels formulaic. “Joy” perhaps marks the moment when Russell’s style has become too overwrought, or at least overworked. Much like Joy did to her parents, Lawrence should leave her filmic family of Cooper and Russell and explore other territories and return to projects like “Winter’s Bone” (2010) in which she had nothing to lose. With her Russell and Hunger Games trilogies now complete, “J-Law” will, I hope, explore new territories different from the ones that made her a household name.