Joy Review: Less Than Delightful

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David O. Russell’s latest effort is an inspiring tale filled with charismatic performances, but the film is muffled by its chaotic execution.

It makes perfect sense that the story of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop would be placed in the hands of David O. Russell. The inimitable director’s previous films all feature scrappy up-and-comers; everyday citizens with big dreams and unstoppable determination. This real-life, rags-to-riches tale is right in his wheelhouse.

Yet, Russell doesn’t trust the true story of Joy Mangano enough to allow for a really impactful message. His adaptation is not only largely fictitious, it seems cobbled together from several ideas that never quite mesh together. Is Joy a dysfunctional family comedy? A thrilling game of corporate chess? A satire on the marriage of media and commerce? Truthfully, it tries to be all of these things and more, but the tonal shifts between each idea are rarely seamless.

Joy is the story of a strong, complex woman, and lest you forget this, the film beats you over the head with the fact that she is a woman who doesn’t need a man to get things done several times. This concept, of course, is inherently a good thing, but in a year with such sharp and diverse female-led projects like Mad Max: Fury RoadTrainwreck, and TV’s UnREAL, this feels like a hop-on-the-bandwagon moment, as if to show how progressive the makers of this film can be. Additionally, many of the titular character’s most triumphant conversations occur in the presence of other men. A lot of the other women in her life are painted as either being hapless or shrews.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is the glue that holds her ramshackle family together, despite the fact that they’re constantly trying to squash her dreams. She lives in a house with her two children, her bedridden, soap opera-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen), her grandmother (a lovely Diane Ladd), and her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramirez), a wannabe Tom Jones who’s somehow one of the most levelheaded voices in the movie. Soon her selfish, blue collar father (an overbearing Robert DeNiro) moves in as well after his second marriage goes bust. There’s also her obnoxiously jealous half-sister (Elizabeth Röhm), who spends most of the film either seething about Joy’s lack of business acumen, or making half-assed attempts to undermine her.

Suffice it to say, Joy has a lot on her plate, but the film exaggerates her domestic struggle into a nonstop war zone. Individually, the characters—and the way the actors portray them—are compelling. But when forced into the same room together, they become almost suffocating.

Even Joy herself is no more than two-dimensional. She’s either a capable and determined badass or a weeping mess. I get that the two are supposed to coexist, showing how even the bravest of people can have moments of vulnerability. Yet, the change between the two characteristics feels like a light switch has been flicked. There really is no in between. Lawrence is certainly a talented actress, and her assured delivery does help elevate the role, but not by much. There’s also the whole age issue; Lawrence is at least a decade younger than the real Mangano was at the time of the Miracle Mop invention. Again, she’s capable at surpassing this hurdle, but you can’t help but thing of the other capable, older actresses who could’ve done the same.

The plot is told in a nonlinear fashion which, while captivating, feels like overkill when it’s paired with the film’s heavy-handed surrealism and stylized direction. Joy’s road to success and fulfillment is littered with soap opera dream sequences, swooping, careening cinematography, and metaphors upon metaphors that are far too on-the-nose to be clever. Russell’s dizzying direction has worked well in his previous films. American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook both gained a sense of urgency from his unique sense of style. Here, however, they’re rather exhausting.

Perhaps this is because Joy is a rather straightforward story, whereas his other efforts have been a bit more complex. The frenetic pacing of Silver Linings matched the unpredictability of the main characters. The same goes for Hustle, with its constant cons and double-crosses. In Joy, the only wildcards lie within the central family’s antics, but since they’re all more caricature than character, the entire execution feels forced.

There are moments of brilliance, however, particularly when Joy aligns herself with the then newly-minted QVC through a shrewd, but optimistic executive named Neil (a charming, but ultimately unnecessary Bradley Cooper). In these scenes Joy springs to life, because it focuses solely on its central subject and just how much of an unstoppable force she can be. If the film included more moments like this, it would be a much more powerful portrait.

Looked at as a whole, Joy is certainly inspiring. Watching Lawrence’s heroine overcome all obstacles in the pursuit of the American dream is thrilling, but the deeper the film delves into her struggles, the more tedious they become. It’s a shame, really, because the crew both in front of and behind the camera have produced excellent work before. This film tries to match those heights, but fails to create the same sense of excitement. Grade: C+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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