Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper
Runtime: 124 Minutes
The most damning thing to find out about Joy is the fact that its marketing campaign up until this point has been trying to sell to you an entirely different picture. Playing coy with the specifics of its plot, detail and real-life inspirations and figures, the trailers and posters have instead chosen to show off the star-studded ensemble cast of yet another David O. Russell production, with Hollywood darling of the moment Jennifer Lawrence dead at the centre in a broad and varied character piece of epic proportions. The sad truth is that by the film's end, you’re still very much waiting for that film to arrive in some shape or form, and in fact this small-scale tale of Miracle Mop inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say about anything that its depicting.
A heavily fictionalised storyline loosely based on the titular figure of the story, Russell has expanded from Annie Mumolo’s original concept in order to try and encapsulate the essence of a life as played by newfound muse Lawrence – and the baggage that comes from this drastic elaboration of what should be a fairly straightforward story is the films largest downfall. Russell has proven himself in the past to be a perfectly capable director with a passable amount of vision, but there are choices present here that exhibit a director desperately wringing as much drama from its characters as possible (not unlike the self-wringing mop of Joy’s design).
He’s shown chops for broad satire in the past with the magnificently well-executed Three Kings, but his wild stabs at satire making here give the screenplay a glaring obviousness that misses more often than it hits. Joy’s mother lost in the faux drama of her theatrical soap operas mirroring the chaos of her real family dips in and out of scenic focus, as does the shockingly misguided voiceover narration from Diana Ladd as Joy’s grandmother.
Joy herself isn’t exactly that interesting of a character to begin with, as Russell sets her up to be this precious stamped out flower of a person, whose childhood power is that she doesn’t need a prince in her life to fulfil her desires. Her independence, endurance and ingenuity are evidence enough of these fantastic qualities without the screenplay demanding that we catch up with it. Her position as a “dooer” constantly bemoaned and questioned by many of the genuinely horrible members of her family.
If there’s a salvation in making Joy a mellow slog to get through then it’s down to the power of its performances. Likeable or not, everyone is on form here, from the Cooper and Madsen to Isabella Rossellini and De Niro still being miraculously great in Russell’s productions. Unsurprisingly by this point, it’s Lawrence who walks away from this as the most powerful allure. Conveying so much tiresome fortitude and surface emotion while carrying herself with such natural talent, she’s rarely a weak element in anything she’s a part of.
Again though, the film's worst enemy appears to be the director himself, who despite his best efforts can’t seem to find an interesting enough manner in which to present this pretty simplistic tale. Careening between piercingly obscure dream sequences in the first act, to musical cues designed to elicit laughter that simply isn’t present in the scene, its approaches towards deadpan comedy nearly all fall flat. There are wonderful moments in the second act where we see Joy selling her product on QVC, allowing Lawrence to shine in a sort of metatextual commentary on her as an everyday person who just happens to be famous, but it’s not dwelled on for long enough and barely forms a centrepiece around which the rest of its slapdash sequences can be structured.
Russell has been playing around in the Oscar game for quite some time now, and the shtick is starting to become a tiresome tradition to watch. Joy is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and that lack of focus is its biggest failure.