Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Virginia Madsen, Elisabeth Röhm, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, Bradley Cooper, Dascha Polanco
MPAA Rating: (for brief strong language)
Running Time: 2:04
Release Date: 12/25/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2015
Joy is a story of triumph filtered through a lens of quirky misery. The movie announces at its start that it's inspired by the stories of countless women (and one in particular), which is, at best, a quick way of saying that we shouldn't take what follows too seriously or, at worst, a bit of hollow pandering to sensibilities of female empowerment. This is the story of a young woman who has spent most of her life denying her ambitions and potential, and as a fine how-do-you-do for her taking the reins of her own life, she is met with derision, suspicion, betrayal, and obstacle after obstacle. The result is a lead character who feels more like a participant in a professional endurance test than a person.
The central problem here is that Joy (Jennifer Lawrence, who's fine enough, given the limitations of the role) is defined almost exclusively by the trials she suffers. Just about everyone and almost everything surrounding her are barricades to her success and happiness. Her role is solely to face those challenges with a plucky sense of determination and saintly patience.
The screenplay by director David O. Russell almost seems to take perverse delight in how many people and ordeals the character must face. It's not enough, for example, that Joy gets into debt on account of her business failures. She becomes indebted to her rolling stone of a father's newest girlfriend, whom he met by joining a telephone dating service for widows and widowers.
The father's wives, by the way, are alive and mostly well, although Joy's mother spends her life lying in bed and watching soap operas all day and night. At one point, Joy has a nightmare about being trapped in one of her mother's favorite shows, which is a bit redundant when the movie itself feels as if it's just a few cuts away from being in the same dramatic realm as a daytime melodrama. Instead, it's just melodrama, with Russell's focus on the abundance of circumstances that stand in Joy's way.
In her childhood, she used to love to create, until her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) put the kibosh on that. Now in her 20s, Joy works for an airline. She's divorced and essentially a single mother to her two children, even though her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) lives in the basement of her childhood home while he's trying to get his singing career off the ground.
Joy is still living in the house, too, since her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) has given up on the prospect of taking care of herself. Rudy's most recent wife has had enough of him, so he ends up in the basement with his ex-son-in-law. Joy's half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) constantly puts Joy down to make herself feel better. Only grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), our unlikely narrator for the story, offers Joy any support, and it's all in the form of platitudes.
These supporting characters are so broadly conceived and performed that the opening act of the movie comes across as a parade of misery, and Russell seems to working under the belief that the characters' quirks are supposed to endear them to us. Instead, they feel unnaturally absurd in their obvious placement against Joy. A couple of them change a bit, with Terry finding romance with a plumber (Jimmy Jean-Louis) and Tony becoming an advisor to Joy, but it hardly matters by the time those shifts occur.
That's because the parade is just beginning for Joy. She comes up with an idea for a self-wringing mop, and the story proceeds to follow the process of developing it—from a workable model to mass production in Rudy's auto garage—to selling it—from an illegal sales pitch in a store's parking lot to pitching it to a newly formed shopping channel. The fact that the subject matter might seem relatively inconsequential is unimportant (Remember Ebert's cardinal rule that how a movie is about its subject is more important than the subject itself), although the movie never offers any reason for us to see the story as anything other than inconsequential.
Dramatically, the story is a repetitive process of promises and disappointments. Rudy's new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), the widow of a millionaire, gives Joy the starting funds, and of course, she becomes a hindrance as the mop fails to sell. The movie's centerpiece sequence is a lengthy, drama-stopping tour of the cable shopping channel's day-to-day operations, led by the channel's manager Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). The expectation set up by this sequence, of course, is of huge success. It turns out, also of course, to be a cynical bait-and-switch.
That could describe the course of the entirety of Joy, really. Joy must fail over and over again with increasingly detrimental results. Whether she ultimately succeeds or fails has nothing to do with her or her specific actions. She only has to stick it out long enough for the end result. That's a denial of the person Joy is, too.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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