Raucous Joy an Exuberant Celebration of the Human Spirit
For those anticipating Joy is going to be a straight-forward, somewhat typical big movie star biography of Home Shopping Network star and Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, I can only guess you’ve never watched a single one of writer/director David O. Russell’s seven previous motion pictures. The man behind such diverse beauties as Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and Silver Linings Playbook rarely plays things safe or chooses the easiest route of narrative familiarity. Once again, he’s toying with themes and ideas, working inside an acerbically comedic world that emulates old Hollywood masters yet does so by utilizing his own personal idiosyncratic modernist quirks.
Not so much a biography as a cagey dissection of the American Dream as seen through the eyes of a hardscrabble everywoman deciding the hand that’s been dealt is not the one she’d prefer to play, the movie is oftentimes a giddily funny, surprisingly intimate tale of perseverance and inspiration that’s kind of wonderful. I respond to its themes, adore many of its central ideas, while certain passages, especially from the superb middle section, have me grinning ear-to-ear in contented bliss. Easily Russell’s most invigorating use of a female protagonist, if the film isn’t entirely successful, it isn’t for lack of effort or overarching ambition on his part, and when all is said and done Joy is quickly proving to be a piece of pop entertainment that’s growing on me more and more with each passing day.
Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) was meant for more. The single mother of two, her divorced mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) sleeping in her den while her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) shares the basement with her cantankerous – if well-meaning – father Rudy (Robert De Niro), Joy is day-by-day coming to the end of her rope. Even with her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) in her ear with messages of support, her unwavering belief in her granddaughter’s potential for greatness endearing, even if reality keeps making such exultations look silly, the still young woman is feeling lost, under no illusions things are going to change anytime soon.
Unless she does something about it, that is, and that’s what Joy intends to do. Struck with inspiration after cleaning up a mess created by a broken bottle of wine, she comes up with an idea for a mop that could revolutionize the industry, if she can get anyone to take a look at it. With financial backing from Rudy’s wealthy new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), she convinces Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), programming manager for the Home Shopping Network, to give her a chance, believing her invention will become a sensation if given an opportunity.
Messy, feeling slightly improvised, filled with larger-than-life performances that run the gamut from heartfelt to cartoonish, Russell’s Joy is nonetheless a wholly satisfying excursion into inspiration and perseverance, all of it anchored magnificently by Lawrence. Her sensational performance is the engine upon which everything else runs, her multifaceted hardscrabble ebullience a thing of beauty throughout. It’s as good as the Oscar-winner has ever been, and if the movie surrounding her isn’t as tight or as concise as I kept feeling like I wanted it to be, her magnificence more than helped negate those feelings of minuscule dissatisfaction.
Not that I was feeling nearly as unsatisfied as that statement might lead one to believe. If American Hustle was Russell’s Martin Scorsese meets Sidney Lumet movie, then Joy is where he’s stomping into Billy Wilder meets Preston Sturges meet Robert Altman territory with gleeful conviction. A sprawling cast of characters, over-the-top narrative arcs, larger-than-life bursts of emotional exuberance, a cacophony of voices strung together like a symphonic operetta, the director is reaching for the stars in much the same way as his protagonist is. Yet, as wild as things become, Joy remains rooted at the center of the maelstrom come what may, the focus on her and centering on what’s she’s going through as well as what she hopes to achieve.
The best bit is the second act journey that begins with the heroine first heading to the Home Shopping Network to meet apprehensively with Walker, ultimately culminating with her ascendance to the main television stage to pitch her revolutionary product for herself. It’s a glorious 20, maybe 30 minutes of filmmaking, Russell orchestrating the highs, lows and delicately fragile in-betweens with pinpoint precision. Additionally, Lawrence and Cooper once again prove to be as charismatic a cinematic duo (the deathly dreary Serena notwithstanding) as any in recent memory, while the former’s running the full gamut of the emotional spectrum during her live T.V. debut is a priceless wonder that had my eyes filling with ecstatic tears.
Truthfully, it’s the third, climactic act where the problems lie, and while the close-out moment is terrific, getting there is something of a lumpy slog. Here is where Joy’s success is assaulted from all sides, by Rudy and Trudy most egregiously, but also by her conniving manufacturer, an unscrupulous Texas ne’er-do-well claiming to have a piece of her Miracle Mop patent. Russell seems bored by all of this, knowing his heroine has already met with victory, so her being able to overcome this latest roadblock is like an unavoidable foregone conclusion. There is no heat here, no intensity, and not until she’s staring down the Texan eye-to-eye do things come alive with the same electrically visceral human intensity the rest of the film delightfully drowns in.
Not that I can’t get Joy out of my head. I love the expedition that this wonderfully complex heroine is on, watching her use her intelligence to get what she wants out of life gloriously gratifying. Lawrence is superb, as are De Niro, Cooper and Ramírez, and while the narrative framing device reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard is a little too clever for its own good, Ladd’s delivery of her lines are imbued with such adoration and love they hit home all the same. There is the high probability this movie is going to grow on me more and more as the years go by, Russell’s deeply personal, femininely enthusiastic celebration of the human spirit a raucous winner I can contentedly embrace.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)