Even now, after venturing out to watching it AGAIN, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something a little off about David O. Russell/Jennifer Lawrence’s latest collaboration, Joy, holding it back from being a truly satisfying movie. The issue is, even watching it again, walking in with what I know now about the movie, I’m just not sure that I can pinpoint the issues that made it not work for me. Joy is like a recipe you taste but aren’t sure if you left something out or put too much of something else in. It just has that sour taste.
There are aspects of Joy I really like. The truth is that I think the story of the inventor of the Miracle Mop could make a really entertaining movie, and the stories of ambitious enterprisers are often interesting and inspiring, regardless of their area of invention. In fact, the moments in Joy of true cleverness, such as when she finds a way to sell the mop in the parking lot or gives her television pitch, have that effect, but those are brief moments in a movie that never seems to find that key rhythm and spirit overall. It moves from youth to the present-day bio-pic, to family melodrama, to thriller—without finding a way of blending all these genres into a fully rewarding film. And while I don’t think the most traditional biopic would have worked on this either, a more satirical family film (closer to Russell’s The Fighter or Flirting with Disaster) or genre film (Three Kings or even American Hustle), might have. Russell never makes his choice about the direction and style he wants to take the movie, and rather than feeling like an inspired choice, it just feels like a story rendered inconsequential.
One of the big problems with Joy is the fact that Jennifer Lawrence’s age does alter the story of the real-life character she’s playing. It isn’t perhaps as glaring a misstep as many feared when they heard about the casting, but it does change the story’s direction. The main plot of the film, the years that she spent developing and trying to sell The Miracle Mop, were about a single mother taking care of her family in her mid-30s. In this film, Lawrence seems much younger, and some of the desperation you think might be there if she were a little older seems to be missing in the performance. It almost feels like the extended flashback of her meeting and marrying her future ex-husband is there to justify casting a younger actress, but that entire section is also the element that seems most out of place for the story being told, which could easily be cut out.
Otherwise, Lawrence certainly does a good job, although as in The Hunger Games film this year, she’s doing a lot of acting opposite actors with very, very little to do, dealing with significantly underwritten roles and relationships. DeNiro seems out of place as her father, playing a broader version of his last roles in Russell’s films. Isabella Rossellini is entertaining as Joy’s benefactor/lover of DeNiro, but her welcome presence drops off midway through the film. Édgar Ramírez and Dascha Polanco have some of the nicest scenes with Lawrence as her ex-husband and best friend, although more about that friendship would have been nice in this film, especially compared to the troubled relationship she has with her half-sister, Elisabeth Röhm.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie was the potential for telling a smart story about female family relationships is lost because all the women in the family around Joy seem so oddly underwritten. I know Russell wanted to stress those female relationships, because Joy’s son in the movie is ushered out of the room every time so Joy only interacts with her daughter. Röhm is written to primarily feel hateful of her sister, but we never get an idea of why that relationship evolved that way or what her life is like in the family. Did she hear how special Joy was as often as we are? The person saying this over and over is Diane Ladd, as her grandmother, who is there more to say exactly what we should be thinking than to be Joy’s closest family member. While Virginia Madsen is sometimes funny as her shut-in mother, the character seems to be treated cruelly by not giving a sense of what she was like before or any psychological reality to her behavior.
Dropping the ball on the family story is almost a way to force Bradley Cooper’s late addition as the head of a home shopping cable channel feel more plot driven than it really is. Cooper is pretty good as the fast-talking mogul, but when you consider the larger film, the scenes seem extended just to give Cooper and Lawrence more opportunities for flashy scenes together rather than driving the story back home. One (not three) pitches from Cooper would have worked to explain what the channel was all about, and tightening Joy’s move to push her product herself would have made a bigger impact. Remember, a lot of this movie is about her invention of The Miracle Mop; we hear the same pitch she gives on air A LOT before that big television pitch.
But there are some things I can appreciate about Russell’s approach to the material. He does make a pretty clear decision early on to tell the story as a modern Cinderella story, with her overcoming her troubles by making it about her own actions, not a prince charming. There are some lovely individual scenes in he movie, even if a couple of the scenes seem to have been made to be “trailer moments”—something Russell has been guilty of since his comeback in The Fighter. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that for a movie called Joy, about a real person, I don’t know or care much about the character of Joy. She never feels like a fully developed character as much as she is a vehicle for the idea of inspirational spokeswoman, and I’m sure the real Joy Mangano is a far more nuanced character than she is here. Joy may be a likable and admirable character, but not an especially memorable or identifiable one.
There is also one aspect of the film that truly did rub me the wrong way: opening with a dedication to strong women. I understand the reason for it, but it did strike me as patronizing, as if trying to avoid criticism for those very underwritten female characters (including the the character of Joy) by promising something that’s never really delivered. I got the same sense watching this film that I got trying to get through a few episodes of Ally McBeal years ago. I know they’re saying this is focused on a woman, but the writing feels like something filtered through a male perspective of what he thinks independent women are like and not this individual, singular character. We know from Bridesmaids that Annie Mumolo, who wrote the original screenplay and has a story credit on Joy, has a sense of how to write female relationships and internal struggle, which is the biggest thing lacking in Russell’s screenplay here. As it is, Joy ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.
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