Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
JOY | 124 min | PG-13
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Elisabeth Röhm, Dascha Polanco, Édgar Ramírez, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini
“Joy. And Pain. Like Sunshine. And Rain.” – Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock
David O. Russell is known for his quirky comedies about dysfunctional families. At their core, a majority of his films unravel the ties that bind, then weave them into a patchwork of sorts. THE FIGHTER blended his practically-trademarked familial commentary with light biopic trappings to create magic (and Oscar gold). With JOY, the auteur attempts to do the same, yet fails in an almost spectacular fashion. It’s exceptionally maddening and deliriously sloppy. Tones fluctuate wildly – more so than usual. Fantastical elements are abandoned for basic, familiar drama. The titular character’s real-life counterpart changed the face of American innovation. Her cinematic portrayal – a very fictionalized biopic – doesn’t.
When we meet Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), she’s toiling away working for an airline that she hates. She’s also an amateur inventor, but her recent creation has failed because of her family’s negligence and her own inexplicable inability to finish the job. She loves her family despite them being annoying, bickering dependents. Outside of Joy’s young son and daughter inhabiting her home, there’s her soap opera devotee mom Terry (Virginia Madsen) who stays in bed all day, her lackadaisical lounge singer ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in her basement, and her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) who’s her lone peaceful respite/ cheerleader. And now Joy’s horrible half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) wants her to house their argumentative father, Rudy (Robert De Niro). However, Joy’s insular, suffocating world is about to open up when she invents a mop. Not just any mop – a revolution in home care, the “miracle mop” (though it’s never called this outside of text on the screen).
There are a few exasperating elements with JOY that confront audiences almost instantly. First of all, it’s narrated (which is grating in and of itself), and secondly, there’s a soap opera/ fairy tale aspect. Both things could potentially work extremely well if they were carried through with greater craft and care. Mimi’s narration plays like a last ditch effort to make this film work when it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. If this story is wholly from Joy’s perspective (as the director posits), shouldn’t the narration be as well? Joy’s deadpan nature that permeates the world around her is a fascinating concept – only that too isn’t followed through, as no one told the rest of the cast that’s what they were doing. Bless her heart, Lawrence tries to deliver the dialogue in that tone, however, her delivery is more dull and dreary. At least the other ensemble members have some sort of tangible vibrancy. De Niro turns in a solid performance because he infuses his character with vim, vigor and vulnerability. Bradley Cooper, who plays QVC maestro Neil Walker, is also a standout. The segment where he explains how the emerald city of cable TV networks functions and then conducts the chorus of operators is truly transfixing. It’s one of the film’s sporadic best moments.
Joy Mangano’s biography (from Wikipedia at least) really does have the makings of a magnificent rags-to-riches fairy tale about achieving the American Dream, so Russell and Annie Mumolo (who’s credited with a “story by” credit) were smart to bring it to life. It’s too bad they don’t follow through with it. Russell abandons this about two-thirds of the way through, and the film becomes incredibly conventional. The filmmakers might have you believe it’s because Joy has become focused and her dream is turning into a reality. We know better. Time feels ethereal, jumping from decade to decade without many indications beyond the wardrobe of fictional soap opera players – cameos from soap stars Susan Lucci, Maurice Bernard and Laura Wright. Characters in Joy’s world are barely one dimensional. There’s never any substantial affinity for anyone – even the kind souls. We don’t learn much about her bestie Jackie (Dascha Polanco), except that she’s married to an African American fellow and swoops in to help save Joy’s day twice. Mimi is a specter, even though she’s given weight as the narrator. Terry is a substandard Russell caricature, a person who’s around exclusively for quirk’s sake. Plus, the way Joy is written, she too feels lacking. They are even careful about not saying her last name, so this could be anyone. Except that it’s not. Show us what’s inside of her that stops her from kicking her bickering, freeloading family to the curb!
Russell is a capable director so I’m not exactly sure what went wrong in the making of this movie. Is it a case of poor test screenings and re-shoots? Is it executive notes and studio meddling? Is it a bad script? We may never know. The female-forward emotional throughline of women helping other women is fantastic and heartening. However, there are a host of other problems that serve to drag the picture down: It’s incoherent in spots (e.g. her parents’ divorce), chaotic solely for dramatic stakes in others, and peppered with random camera techniques better suited to a Terrence Malick parody. In the hands of a female director, JOY could have been magical. Ultimately, the film fails to sell us on its goods.
JOY opens on December 25.