Saturday, December 26, 2015
Joy is a Christmas gift for those who like their Jennifer Lawrence films pitched to manic heights. Now that the Hunger Games franchise has concluded and Lawrence’s work in the X-Men films is wrapping up, can we expect more projects like this one from America’s champion of celebrity privacy? Joy is Lawrence’s third film with writer/director David O. Russell, and like American Hustle and the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook it is filled with an energy and bustle that eventually resolves itself into something more conventional. Russell loosely based his script on the life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), whose early ‘90s invention of the “Miracle Mop” ended her paycheck-to-paycheck existence and made her a fixture on cable shopping channels. While Mangano’s career sounds like a fine case study for business schools, what David O. Russell has turned her life into is a fable of Lost American Ingenuity. As a girl, the film’s Joy (played as a child by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) is endlessly creative but the divorce of her parents (played with great relish by Robert DeNiro and Virginia Madsen) puts her on a track through marriage to a failed singer (Edgar Martinez), motherhood, and a series of dead-end jobs.
When Joy is telling the story of Joy’s disappointing home life and subsequent inspiration the film keeps up a surreal comic tone that’s as fun as anything Russell has ever done. Some of Lawrence’s best scenes come when she’s struggling to balance the needs of her kids and her bickering parents and ex - all of whom are for a time in the same house - with her own frustrations. Russell stages a dream sequence that puts Joy inside the soap her mother watches obsessively (cheers to Susan Lucci for agreeing to parody her own image), and when Joy is confronted by her unhappy childhood self the little girl reminds her that “We used to make things.” I half-expected an Arcade Fire song to begin at this point, but in fact it’s just this on the nose sort of writing that starts to drag the film down. Once Joy has the idea for the mop the rhythm that Russell has built up begins to dissipate in a blizzard of details about molds, production costs, marketing, and Joy’s jealous half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm). When Joy takes her mop to the then brand-new QVC channel Russell first holds on Lawrence seated; he shoots the stomachs of the men she’ll be pitching to as they talk over her head. If the rest of the sequence had been that pointed it might have been great fun, but the film stops so that the QVC boss (Bradley Cooper) can cut off a subordinate’s dirty joke and then deliver a sermon on his own resume and how the channel operates. There’s no irony here save for Melissa Rivers doing a cameo as her mother Joan, but QVC boss Barry Diller is mentioned with great reverence. (Barry Diller is the former head of 20th Century Fox, the studio whose logo appears at the beginning of Joy.) For a moment it’s as if we’re watching one of those How-They-Did-It documentaries on CNBC.
Joy ends with an epilogue flash-forward to a wealthy Joy and Cooper’s now suppliant executive. Family members are posed outside Joy’s office door, now merely hangers-on. Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) tells us in voice-over of all that Joy will achieve in years to come, but it would have nice to see some that inspiration while the film was still going on. As Joy comes to the brink of financial ruin, Lawrence’s performance becomes a study in doggedness. Joy’s father and his wealthy girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) keep explaining to her that she doesn’t understand “business”, but instead of dramatizing that Joy is smarter than they are all Russell can do is have Joy save herself through the force of Lawrence’s personality. There is even self-administered haircut to signify Joy’s sense of purpose. Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star who’s also a good actor, and she pulls off the final confrontation easily - the other guy was never in the game. Joy may in fact be the best role that Russell has given to Lawrence, it contains the most opportunity for shading, but Russell’s script front-loads the character arc and then it’s as if he got distracted. When Lawrence struts away from the scene where Joy’s future is secured, she looks happy but also as exhausted as the audience feels. When the real Joy Mangano left that meeting - which surely occurred under different circumstances - I’ll bet she was thinking about what came next.