As someone who’s analyzed director David O. Russell’s use of women, I was incredibly skeptical about his latest film, Joy, being anywhere near amazing. Sorry, but I don’t blindly subscribe to the cult of Russell and Jennifer Lawrence collaborations, and haven’t found much enjoyment in the director’s work since The Fighter. Complications over his rewriting of Annie Mumolo’s sweet, if not exactly Oscar-caliber, script also left me ambivalent about the venture. Joy certainly has the feeling in abundance, and Lawrence and the supporting cast leap off the screen, but it’s hard shaking off the feeling that Russell is grinning from ear to ear about how feminist he is when he’s really doing little more than mansplaining.
Based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, Joy (Lawrence) is a single mother struggling to raise her children, her parents, and ex-husband. An inventor from childhood, Joy latches on to the idea of a self-wringing mop that could be the million-dollar idea that’ll change her and her family’s life.
There remain questions about who’s exact story this is. The original script was meant to tell the tale of Mangano, but IMDB and a muted last name in the movie imply that element’s changed. Russell himself opens the film with the phrase “Inspired by the true stories of daring women…” in one of several moments where the director wants to say, “This is for ALL women” which continues with Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) acting as omniscient narrator.
By adding in this everywoman quality it dampens Joy’s agency. This isn’t her story….although we’re watching her life, career, idea, ect. The entire thing feels commodified in a way that a stray reference to Joy’s father (Robert De Niro) eventually trying to steal Joy’s idea would have felt more organic. The fact that the entire third act ends by mentioning this plot element – far more intriguing than how Russell ends things – leaves audiences with the feeling that Russell himself has adapted the plot to make himself look like a progressive feminist when he’s little more than a high-falutin’ charlatan.
What works is found in Mumolo’s original beats and they’re easily discovered because they are the moments of pure happiness and heart. Joy going out with to the K-Mart to sell her mop to unsuspecting women, and acting as a mock customer to drum up business, and her initial moment on QVC are from the original script and are the shining jewels of what could have been. Lawrence’s effervescence shines through in these scenes because it’s a perfect unison of script and performance that’s quickly sapped by Russell’s overbearing hand reminding the audience that he’s the one controlling this show. These are also the moments reliant on ideas like female support and unity, and in a year where Brooklyn sharply illustrated the female support system, Joy looks like second best in every area.
And, boy, does Russell want you to give him credit. Nearly every grand moment of a man talking or helping Joy comes off like Russell’s invisibly chucking Joy under the chin or patting her on the head. That’s not to say there aren’t good moments involving men. Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s husband takes a part that could have been stereotypical and one-dimensional and infuses it into an interesting dynamic about the pitfalls of romance and its seguing into platonic friendship that ends up being true love in a totally different way.
Bradley Cooper gets the flatter role of a QVC executive who gives Joy her big break, and while he talks in ridiculous man-speak (using the story of David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones as a metaphor for the American dream which no classic film fan would agree with) he does try to act in line with Joy’s interests despite everything being grand platitudes and prophecy.
(Speaking of, some of the dialogue here is pretty atrocious and VERY on-the-nose. If you can handle a character saying “Remember that party….where it all started” before seguing into a scene of said party where everything started then you’ll forgive Joy anything. Another character using the “adversaries in commerce” line from the trailer also leads exactly where you’d expect it to.)
The elephant in the room is Russell’s own blindness towards the true moral of the story. Just because one adds pointed references to Joy’s strength – “I don’t need a prince” – the film never grapples with the central conceit of why the film should be more than “a woman with a mop.” Joy’s idea stems from finding a market the men in power can’t see. Since women are the ones cleaning their homes they understand what works and what would be beneficial to have. Joy essentially creates a market no one knew needed to exist.
Instead, Russell rips that accomplishment away from Joy by turning her into a mad genius constantly inventing items that just happen to be though of by people wealthier/with more time than her. She doesn’t corner a market so much as stumble on an idea that no one’s thought to market right away. And the film never has Joy attack the various Doubting Thomas’s in her life who, survey says, are all men. When the various male execs at QVC giggle over her idea or, later on, don’t know how to market it, she never states the obvious reason for their failure – they want the money female audiences can provide, but don’t market products beyond jewelry or clothes.
Joy, too often, backs down when we’re supposed to see her as this grand savior. When her father and his girlfriend (an always amazing Isabella Rosselini) insult Joy and force her into declaring bankruptcy – a moment that’s never acknowledged….yet she signed papers so is she bankrupt or not? – Joy just sits there and takes it. Too often women are the movie’s greatest villains, as if it’s okay for them to berate Joy because they’re female. It’s all equal if men and women attack her. In fact, Russell’s idea of an epiphany is Joy cutting her hair, which in the opposite of Samson, gives her the strength to become a bad-ass.
There’s also bizarre digressions into the soap opera world inhabited by Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen). While sure to please soap opera fans with actual soap stars there’s little reason for it, particularly since it’s not adhered to throughout the entire movie. The fantasy element could work if, again, it did something more towards addressing the gender dynamics. Instead it has all the tact of Russell saying “Look at stupid women who watch soaps.”
Russell wants to have his cake and be praised for baking it. Joy’s faults are purely those of its director and screenwriter – who are one and the same. Jennifer Lawrence and the rest of the cast are perfectly fine although far from doing their best work. Had there been some female influence outside of the leads there might have been a better-rounded film within Joy. When it works, it’s charming and sweet; when it doesn’t, you’re clenching your fists at the wasted potential. It’s a perfectly watchable film, but far from being in the realm of awards worthy.