Joy

January 4, 2016
Jennifer Lawrence in 'Joy' (2015)
Jennifer Lawrence in 'Joy' (2015)

David O. Russell is one of the few active Hollywood directors that thinks in terms of stories, scripts and actors rather than big budgets and special effects. Paolo Sorrentino is the most talented director to emerge from Italy over the past two decades. Both men have new movies released this week, movies that are flawed but fascinating.

Russell has enjoyed great success with Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle (2013), the latter scoring no fewer than 10 Academy Award nominations without a single win. Personally, I would have given it Best Movie over Steve McQueen’s stiff, earnest 12 Years a Slave, but class and humour were no match for political piety.

Joy arrives with huge expectations, but it is a strange, patchwork quilt of a film that never settles. Russell takes us through extremes of exhilaration and despair without generating much drama. Instead, there is an insistent low-level family comedy that occasionally gets edgy.

Like American Hustle this film is based on a true story. It’s the late 1970s, although the pop tunes on the soundtrack such as Cream’s I Feel Free and Buffalo Springfield’s Expecting to Fly, hail from the 1960s. The immaculate Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the smartest girl at school, born into a completely dysfunctional family. As she burns through her twenties in a series of dead-end jobs, Joy feels she has sunk into a suburban quagmire.

Her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen) has withdrawn from the world into her bedroom, where she watches endless soap operas. These programs play throughout the movie in surreal, parodic sequences that look like they were directed by David Lynch.

Joy’s rambunctious father, Rudy (Robert De Niro) has been dumped by his girlfriend, who brings him back to the Mangano household as if returning a faulty product. Once back, Rudy has to share the basement with Tony (Édgar Rámirez), Joy’s own divorced husband, who never actually moved out. Tony is a would-be Latino Tom Jones whose career has failed to ignite.

Joy has the responsibility of bringing up two small children with only the assistance of her live-in grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), who acts as narrator. Mimi adores her granddaughter and keeps hinting about the great things that lie in store. Most of the time we see only the struggles, told in a series of flash-backs.

The fractured chronology adds to the film’s awkwardness. One minute we are back in Joy’s childhood, then we are witnessing her first teenage meeting with Tony. It’s hard to say what constitutes ‘the present’ because the narration sets the entire story in the past, like a fairy tale.

Joy’s Eureka moment arrives when the family are invited out on a sailboat owned by Rudy’s new girlfriend, a rich widow named Trudy (a wonderfully mannered Isabella Rossellini). Cleaning up spilled wine, Joy cuts her hands on shards of broken glass and realises the world needs a better mop. She goes home, borrows crayons and paper from her daughter, and the Miracle Mop is born!

After much pleading, Joy convinces Trudy to bankroll her prototype, then begins the saga of trying to turn an invention into a successful product. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Bildungsroman – the novel that charts a character’s development from youth to maturity. Joy’s journey entails a battle with small manufacturers, business sharks, and her family, including her envious half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm).

Her big break happens when Tony – a better friend than he was a husband – gets her an appointment to see an acquaintance in the telemarketing business. Almost by accident she meets the boss, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who likes the product. “Can you make 50,000 of these mops by next week?” he asks. Joy believes her troubles are over, but they’ve only begun.

It isn’t until Neil allows Joy to go in front of the camera and do her own sales pitch that things start to click, but even then there is a twist. Although we know from Mimi’s narration that Joy will be a success, that triumph is perpetually being deferred.

The inspiring aspect of Joy is that it’s the story of a single, strong-minded woman who overcomes enormous obstacles to achieve her goals. It’s the sort of role that Katharine Hepburn might have played, although the scriptwriters would have had her back in the kitchen by the end of the film. Joy may be the most dynamic tale of female self-determination since Erin Brockovich (2000).

Weirdly for a Hollywood feature, all the romance in Joy’s life is over by the time the movie begins. She has contracted a foolish early marriage, had two kids, and a divorce. Yet Tony stays around as a friend, and even an advisor. Her meeting with Neil seems promising, but their relationship remains strictly business. The real romance is between Joy and her customers, as she is pitted against every trap that US capitalism puts in her way. She rides into battle armed only with a Miracle Mop, and cleans up.

Joy
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by David O. Russell & Annie Mumolo
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Édgar Rámirez, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco
USA, rated M, 124 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26th December, 2015.