There’s a reason why Jennifer Lawrence is still one of the highest paid working actresses in the world today. Fine, you might have JLaw fatigue right about now but admit it — her persistently excellent performances are certainly worth celebrating. Following the box office success of the fourth and final installment of the Hunger Games franchise, the ever-diverse Lawrence re-teams with writer-director David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), for a third time with the biopic Joy, the rags-to-riches yarn of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, creator of the Miracle Mop.
Starring alongside O. Russell regulars Bradley Cooper, American Hustle (2013), and Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Lawrence portrays the titular character with confidence and poise in this archetypal story of one’s rise to the top. And yeah, while the film does share certain parallels with other previous Oscar contenders — Erin Brockovich (2000) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) for instance — Joy stands on its own two feet thanks to its madcap family dynamics, clear girl-power premise and offbeat early-Burton quirks, all capped off by O. Russell’s wonky tonal shifts and unique screwball vision.
Interweaving two storytelling practices that are generally aimed towards women — the fairytale and the soap opera — Joy takes place in an unspecified rust belt American town during the late ‘80s and early ’90s. Opening with a droll send-up of a fictional long-running daytime television show (look out for Emmy-winning soap veterans such as Laura Wright and Maurice Benard, General Hospital (1963), poking fun at themselves), Joy sets its dreamlike tone right from the get-go as it moves from the hammy fantasy and onto a fanciful voice-over by Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), O. Russell framing the narrative through a Scorsese-type storybook lens.
It’s at this point viewers are introduced to a fictionalized version of Joy Mangano (a mesmerizing Jennifer Lawrence), a divorcee who’s struggling to balance motherhood with her job as a ticket clerk for a budget airline, this burden made all the more difficult given her topsy-turvy living conditions. You see, Joy has to deal with her separated mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), a shut-in who spends her days bedridden, eyes fixated to the TV as she watches the aforementioned serial.
Things get worse when Joy’s cranky factory-working father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), is dumped by his latest fling and with no where to go, turns to Joy (after smashing a few vases and causing a scene), crashing the already congested household where he is forced to share the basement with her ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), a struggling Venezuelan singer (and the father of Joy’s two young children) who’s currently living downstairs until he can afford a space of his own. The men bicker and squabble but it’s up to Joy to hold the fam-bam together. Alas, things weren’t always this way for Joy as O. Russell illustrates through a series of wistful flashbacks where he explores the dysfunctional family and their background, viewers catching a glimpse of a creative young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) cutting and pasting complex paper models in her bedroom.
Working for her bitter half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), at her dad’s truck and auto shop, Joy’s long-dormant genius is reignited when she is forced to clean a nasty wine spill while out on a boating trip with her father and his newest squeeze, Trudy (a scene stealing Isabella Rossellini). Using her grazed hands and daughter’s crayons, Joy sketches the original design for her latest invention — a retractable, self-wringing ‘miracle mop’ — reinventing herself in the process.
With an opening slate that reads ‘Inspired by stories of brave women’ and the words ‘Miracle Mop’ never uttered once, its clear that Joy Mangano’s story has been partly fabricated to fit into O. Russell’s trademark zaniness, with this biographical comedy-drama taking on a surreal attitude opposed to a naturalistic, life-like one. Anyhow, it is at this point where viewers are introduced to Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker, an executive for the QVC television network who gives Joy the opportunity to go live on-air in an attempt to sell the miraculous mop. As usual, Cooper is in fine form playing a focused, good-natured businessman, the forty-year-old actor downplaying the kookiness he exhibited in his other O. Russell roles.
At any rate, watching the hard-working Joy transform herself into a home-shopping sensation (selling 50,000 Miracle Mops in an hour) and then a self-reliant businesswoman is a real treat. A tricky undertaking, it’s in these enchanting scenes that filmmaker O. Russell nails that delicate balance of combining comic fantasy with gritty everyday realism. Furthermore, it’s Lawrence’s unflappable enthusiasm that convinces viewers that Joy was the one who designed ‘the continuous loop of cotton and the involved plastic moulds’ that made her creation so easy to use, the remarkable honey blonde ultimately selling the product (heck, even I though I could do with one of those handy cleaning devices). And just like her character, Lawrence really sells the deal.
Sadly, the picture falters a little when O. Russell tries to cram a number of the his oddball supporting players into one cohesive whole with disloyalty, broken promises and a familial tug-of-war failing to come together in the flick’s swift conclusion. Okay, it’s known that O. Russell generally finds his films in the cutting room, but with four editors credited here — Alan Baumgarten, American Hustle (2013), Jay Cassidy, Fury (2014), Tom Cross, Whiplash (2014), and Christopher Tellefsen, Moneyball (2011) — it’s no surprise that Joy feels that tad bit chaotic (but then again, so did American Hustle).
The way I see it, Joy defies genre altogether and plays out like a modern-day fable of sorts with Joy portraying the part of a Cinderella or Rapunzel type character, locked away in a tower or dungeon, her family depicting the evil stepsisters or Mother Gothel perhaps. And just like all great feminist stories, there’s no Prince Charming to the rescue, Joy building herself up to become a giant corporate matriarch without the aid of a man.
Written by O. Russell and Annie Mumolo, Bridesmaids (2011), Joy is layered with female go-getterism and features a handful of memorable moments which leave a lasting impression; a scene where Joy vents her frustration by firing a pump-action shotgun at the shooting range next door to her father’s workshop is one of many that stand out. With a first-rate production design and a star-studded ensemble this ‘partly-true’ melodrama succeeds as a fitting tribute to Joy Mangano, the single mother who made it out in a man’s world all on her own. Don’t believe me? Well it’s been approved by the real-life Mangano, who serves as an executive producer on the film. Oh the joy!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Joy is released through 20th Century Fox Australia