Jennifer Lawrence is the biggest movie star on the planet right now. Admittedly, this is akin to announcing that water is wet, but it is crucial in understanding a movie like Joy. For while this is technically a spiritual follow-up to her previous collaborations with director David O. Russell, who helmed Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, it is also a film from a different era: one where stars commanded the attention and clout in Hollywood to open ostensibly “feel-good” dramas catering to their greatest strengths.
In an era of billion dollar capes and bows and arrows, this is something of a novelty. And it is also Joy’s best asset. Indeed, the picture should have likely hewn even closer to those Lawrence charms since she (and this rather rare concession to marquee power) is the best thing about a film divided and enmeshed amongst Russell’s recent fixations—creating a muddle of a movie with occasional flashes of unfulfilled brilliance.
In one sense, yes, this is very much a movie about the surprisingly gritty origins of the miracle mop and how Joy Mangano invented it. But proving that any subject matter can be exciting in the right context, Russell again channels Scorsese as much as he did in the mirthfully crooked American Hustle. There are moments in the far stronger second half of Joy where the titular character appears to be conjuring an inner-Michael Corleone as she conducts her family business with cutthroat clarity. Who knew QVC was such a high stakes do-or-die environment?
However, these sequences that give the film (and Lawrence’s performance) a real edge are constantly off-set by a screenplay from Russell that feels indecisive and unfinished. At times, Joy is the squeaky clean, straight-laced alternative to American Hustle (i.e. Russell’s Goodfellas-lite) and at other moments, the picture retraces the dysfunctional family beats from Silver Linings, The Fighter, and Flirting with Disaster.
But whereas those latter films had a song in their step, no amount of actual singing by Lawrence here can overcome the noticeably off-pitch pace of the first hour. During those many early scenes, Russell attempts to idolize Mangano (who not-so-shockingly is also an executive producer on the film) by reveling in the idiosyncrasies of her mostly two-faced family. But what was endearing in previous Russell dramedies is listlessly grating here.
Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Elisabeth Röhm, Virginia Madsen, and Isabella Rossellini all give perfectly fine supporting performances with De Niro being especially enjoyable as Joy’s crude, self-centered, and divorced father. But the overall ensemble of characters fails to coalesce into an enticing portrait of dysfunction like the Solitano or Eklund-Ward broods of Russell’s better recent films.
Ramírez’s Tony starts parasitic as Joy’s musician ex-husband that still lives in her basement while sleeping to noon everyday; Röhm’s Peggy is unabashedly cruel as a spiteful half-sister; and the aforementioned De Niro and his new flame Trudy (Rosellini) are too often vainly opportunistic as budding business partners. This is of course supposed to be a Cinderella story where Joy overcomes all this family baggage, yet they are each so vindictive that they more than comedically reflect the soap operas that Madsen’s mother character is always watching—they are just as truly unbelievable.
The film tries to stich their troubles together with the same breeziness seen in Hustle, and Lawrence genuinely embodies the put-upon, wasted genius/single mother trope with great sympathy (and a convincingly thick upstate New York accent to boot). Yet, the storytelling choices remain problematic, including right down to Joy’s life being narrated not by her own know-it-all mouth like Christian Bale in Hustle, but by Diane Ladd as Mimi, Joy’s grandmother and the one adult in the family who isn’t a jackal. It’s strangely a step removed from the action and far too pious for this kind of yarn.
If up to this point, I have seemed negative that is because the first half is so promising but unfulfilled. The shame is that the second hour finds its pace and manages to capture some of that Russell lightning as soon as Joy steps foot into QVC, which is introduced with the surreal splendor of Oz. It is also here that Bradley Cooper holds court over this fiefdom as a Home Shopping Network executive, and Joy discovers a compellingly brisk narrative about a woman dominating the man’s world one family-created-crisis at a time.
It could be called intentional that the universe only comes alive for Joy after she ventures onto basic cable’s most famous rotating sales room—complete with a biting meta-textual image of a passing Joan Rivers, who was apparently as little a fan of Joy Mangano as she was of Jennifer Lawrence—but really, it’s because the film drops the misplaced family comedy and gives in to the star vehicle strengths of the picture.
Once Mangano has a modicum of success, she becomes fiercely determined to protect it from a variety of dangerous capitalistic vipers. And by the third act, Lawrence is ripping into scenes with the kind of gusto that has made her an Oscar nominee three-times over before the age of 25. The moments where she moves in for the proverbial kill on her enemies brings a taste of Cosa Nostra to small family business life. And yes, she and Cooper’s chemistry still crackles in their all too few scenes together.
Ultimately, Joy is two movies. The cast is uniformly good in both halves, but Russell’s instincts got crossed somewhere near the very beginning of the creative process, and the result is a beautiful looking film with some great moments that struggle to gel together into a cohesive whole. It is Lawrence that unites the elements into an entertaining experience. But perhaps next time, it won’t take so long for her star vehicle to begin revving its engine.
Joy opens on Dec. 25.