In 'Joy,' a Mom Mops Her Way to the American Dream

Uri Klein
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Credit: 'Joy' trailer.
Uri Klein

“Joy,” the third collaboration of talented American director David O. Russell with Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, is an original and interesting film – but not one that offers the same challenging thrill as did “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2012 and “American Hustle” in 2013. In those two movies and in others he made – “Flirting with Disaster” (1996) and “I Heart Huckabees” (2004) – Russell tried to capture the chaos that exists inside American society and within the American family, and he did so wittily. This time, however, the typical materials of his oeuvre (which also includes the bold, satirical 1999 “Three Kings,” still the best movie made about the first Gulf War) are all there, but they are unable to combine into a truly engaging work. The characters are not as interesting as they were in his previous movies, and the ideas explored in “Joy” – in which Russell (again) ponders the possibility of achieving the American dream – remain somehow stuck in the screenplay, unable to leap out of it into a movie that might represent them with sweeping energy.

What makes “Joy” different from previous Russell films is that it focuses on a woman. Like “American Hustle,” it was inspired by a true story, which means that Russell gives himself license to combine the historical truth with fictional elements that enrich it and give the story a satirical tinge. But while in “American Hustle” this strategy worked well, “Joy” feels somehow forced, unable to rise to the level of ideas and emotion for which Russell was aiming.

“Joy” is the story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who keeps her wacky, dysfunctional family together by sheer force of personality. Joy has two children together with her ex-husband, Venezuelan-born Tony (Edgar Ramirez), who dreams of being a Tom Jones-style singer and lives in Joy’s basement. Her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), has not left her room since her husband walked out on her and spends her time faithfully following a soap opera (featuring two icons of the genre, Donna Mills and Susan Lucci). The only steady figure in Joy’s life is Mimi (Diane Ladd), her grandmother, who encourages her to pursue her dreams even if she does not yet know what they are. Mimi also provides voice-over narration, but it’s not clear why, just as it’s not entirely clear what the goings-on in Terry’s soap opera have to do with Joy’s family, though clearly Russell intended some kind of satirical connection. Also living with them is Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), Joy’s half-sister, whose jealousy and negative attitude may become obstacles in Joy’s path.

Jennifer Lawrence in 'Joy.'Credit: AP

Two important figures join this group: Rudy (Robert De Niro), Joy’s father, who makes a surprising comeback and is taken in without the usual accusations about his abandonment (one of the movie’s virtues). Terry does not have the energy to complain, and Joy has neither the time nor the patience. The second figure is Trudy, a wealthy woman who becomes Rudy’s companion; he is amused by the fact that together they are “Rudy and Trudy.” She is played by Isabella Rossellini, and for the first time I can remember, the usually frozen Rossellini breathes life into a film with a successful comic performance.

An unglamorous invention

Joy has two main ambitions in life: to keep the family from going under financially, and to fulfill her own dreams as inventor and entrepreneur. The most entertaining dimension of “Joy,” but not entertaining enough, is that Joy achieves the second goal with an utterly unglamorous invention, unlike most movies about people whose ideas became empires. What she invents is not a new car or a machine that changes history, but rather the self-squeezing “Miracle Mop” that spares housewives from having to touch the dirty mop while cleaning the floor.

“Joy” follows the heroine’s efforts to bring her new product to the public’s knowledge. It isn’t easy, but luckily she has Trudy on her side. The invention of the Miracle Mop coincides with the launching of television’s first shopping channel, run by Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who at first refuses to advertise Joy’s mop because it isn’t glitzy enough (one of the movie’s more amusing ideas is casting Melissa Rivers as her mother, Joan Rivers, who is seen hawking her line of jewelry on the channel). Joy, however, wins him over, and he becomes convinced that she can appeal to women of her own class better than an elegantly dressed, polished presenter.

There are many good materials and scenes in “Joy,” but the movie suffers from two problems that keep it from becoming truly successful. First, it goes off in too many directions, and although Joy is the movie’s center, it lacks a conceptual or emotional focus to draw its many loose ends together. Second, while the numerous characters, Joy included, are interesting and even intriguing, none of them is developed enough to create real identification on our part. As a result of these two problems, what “Joy” has to say remains vague, and – above all – the talented cast suffers.

Jennifer Lawrence’s gifts can’t be doubted, but this time she does not have enough opportunity to show them. De Niro recycles the work he did in his two previous Russell movies, while Virginia Madsen and Diane Ladd, both good actresses, are not given enough screen time to show their skill. Bradley Cooper gives a good performance, but his part is a marginal one that does not let him display much ability.

Russell’s previous movies swept us in with their bizarreness and off-kilter view of American society; as a result they could convey a sharp, witty message. “Joy,” by contrast, leaves us aloof. It is not uninteresting to watch, but it evokes no real emotion or excitement. It’s clear what Russell was trying to do, especially on the heels of “American Hustle,” but the intention remains theoretical and does not translate itself into satisfactory filmmaking.