David O. Russell
David O. Russell, Annie Mumolo
Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm
PG-13 for brief strong language
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Finding absurdity in the halls of realism is a hallmark of David O. Russell’s time as a filmmaker. Joy continues that tradition of painting a fresh layer of neon paint on a plain white foundation, but beneath the layer of generic paint is rich paneling that ends up buried much deeper.
Joy, titled after the woman at the center of the story, is a mother at her wits end. Her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) is co-habituating while looking for his big break as a singer; her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a bed-ridden soap opera junkie; and her business-owner father (Robert De Niro) is a pack of dynamite with a perpetually lit fuse, frequently lobbing harangues at his ex-wife. Jennifer Lawrence takes the lead role in the film, infusing Joy with a careworn frustration that any single mother or child of a single mother can instantly recognize.
As Joy tries desperately to find a way out of her seemingly dead-end life, she latches onto the idea of the Miracle Mop, a self-rinsing cleaning tool that would become one of the most significant and popular household devices ever invented. The film traces her colorful life through its myriad stages of success and failure, briefly aided by the QVC producer (Bradley Cooper) who would give her her big break and ultimately propel her to the greatest successes and frustrations of her life.
The depth of character here is often cheap and too often outlandish. Lawrence may be rightfully and superbly the central focus, but everyone around her is a caricature that seems drawn straight out of the serials her mother watches incessantly. Given these restrictions, the cast does a passable job with the effort. De Niro may seem at home as Joy’s selfish father, but Isabella Rosselini is frustratingly one-note as his future girlfriend and the initial financier of Joy’s new business venture. Ramirez is suitably charming and dependable as Joy’s on-and-off-again emotional support, while Cooper is laughably over-the-top and simultaneously subdued. Diane Ladd is the grounding force of the film as Joy’s confident grandmother, yet Madsen is dull and overindulgent.
Russell takes risks. It’s an admirable quality in a filmmaker, but he has such a strong formula that even when he takes those chances, they are stifled by his own rigidity. Joy, which ushers forth another terrific Lawrence performance, is hamstrung by a hamfisted plot that is stretched just beyond credulity. This is a filmmaker who rejoices in applying those superficial details that embellish and emphasize the reality beneath them, but by failing to strip off the veneer first, and rejecting a coat of varnish in lieu of paint, he tends to diminish the quality of the craftsmanship at the heart of the story.
Russell may be a painter, but the superficiality that was perfectly appealing in some of his prior efforts, doesn’t fit well with this film. His humongous ego interferes with his job as a storyteller. Instead of giving us a personal film that extols the virtues of female entrepreneurship, he gives us a movie that exults the female creative while diminishing her at the same time. By making Joy feel like a small screen exploration of soap-opera anti-realism, Russell has inadvertently criticized and trivialized a strong woman’s successes by making them seem both other-worldly and unrealistic. The last thing powerful women need is a film that turns their palpable success into an unbelievable fantasy.
Joy features a first-rate cast playing disposable and generic characters. Russell may have been attempting to emulate daytime serial motifs in his film, but in doing so he shortchanges his own creative energy and creates a mess of a film that doesn’t do enough to elevate and relate the underlying source material.
November 1, 2016