‘Joy’ is above all else an ambitious movie. It’s writer/director David O. Russell’s ode to the plight of independent women, the struggle of outsiders, the necessary pain of family, the battle to innovate, the corruptions of the business world, and a modern fable about the American dream. Plus, it has a dozen or so other major ideas and themes in play. It’s Russell’s attempt to break free of the genre traps that lead him to Oscar nominated success, while still providing a feel good narrative within an explosion of alienating elements.
The film hits many wondrous highs, yet ultimately flails under the weight of its own ambition and experimentation. Russell throws so many balls into the air that it’s impossible for him to catch them all. However, it’s still pretty damn amusing to watch him try.
Based loosely on the life of Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop, this is the tale of an outsider made good. More specifically, Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy, a young woman who was once filled with dreams and ambitions before they were crushed by reality. She now struggles to bring up a pair of kids while her lounge-singing ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) freeloads in her basement, her mother (Virginia Madsen) watches soap operas endlessly in her bedroom, her father (Robert De Niro) and half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm) remind her of every failing, and she attempts to clean up everyone’s mess (both literally and otherwise). Perpetually exhausted and underachieving, Joy finally decides to make something out of her life when she invents a self-wringing mop. Her family thinks the dream is insane, but her father’s new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) is wealthy and interested in investments. So, Joy takes a risk and tries to start a business, eventually ending up on the burgeoning Home Shopping Channel thanks to the slick support of Bradley Cooper. There will be struggles and an empire to the victor.
This is yet another of Russell’s poignantly messy and hilarious portraits of family dysfunction. Joy’s life is defined by the familial ties that keep her chained to the ground (and a mortgage). Her home life is a wall of eccentric insanity and screaming voices that’s often difficult to penetrate, but leads to a few transcendent moments and performances. Russell might have his weaknesses as a filmmaker, but he’s one of the finest actors’ directors around, able to stage mass scenes of organized chaos with expert control and pull extraordinary naturalistic performances out of any actor in front of his camera. (Even De Niro shows up for Russell, a rarity these days). It’s a joy (pun not intended, I swear) to watch this motley crew of oddballs bounce off each other with electric comedic energy and dramatic tension. Unfortunately, the movie has to go somewhere eventually.
As the tale of a burned-out housewife who carves a place in a world designed to tear her down, Joy is certainly a potent cinematic concept worth exploring. Sadly, Russell isn’t quite sure how to pull that off. The troubles start with Jennifer Lawrence, which is not to say that she isn’t wonderful in the movie given that she’s one of the finest actresses of her generation. No, the problem is that she’s simply too young for this role, which is an endless distraction. Beyond that, her undeniable movie star status makes it almost impossible to believe she won’t triumph over adversity, robbing the movie of necessary tension.
Admittedly, once the movie transitions out of dysfunctional family values and into an amusing satire of corporate manipulation, Russell finds more steady footing. Sequences like Lawrence and Cooper discovering together that they’ve invented a new form of salesmanship explode off the screen. Unfortunately, the director lacks the cohesive focus necessary for those moments to pay off properly. Instead, he’s constantly flying off in wild digressions like a bizarre soap opera parody running parallel to the main narrative that’s amusing on its own, yet confusing in context.
Here’s the strange thing, though: All those wild diversions and tricky flights of filmmaking fancy do lend the movie a sense of style and excitement. After playing it predominantly safe on three strong works of classy awards bait (‘The Fighter’, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, ‘American Hustle’), Russell has finally dipped back into the wild directorial experiments that he brought to ‘Three Kings’ and ‘I Heart Huckabees’. It’s exciting to see Russell in a more playful mode again, and when he’s flying at top speed, ‘Joy’ represents some of his most enjoyably kooky work. The trouble is that he also wants the movie to be an inspirational melodrama within all the madness and that odd combination of tones never quite meshes.
Still, there’s so much to love within the film’s overstuffed two-hour running time that it can’t be written off and it certainly can’t be considered a failure. This is a fascinating, witty, wonderfully made, and inspiring bit of filmmaking. The peaks justify the valleys. Let’s just hope Russell finds more appropriate subject matter for his next rambunctious cinematic playground.