20th Century Fox
Depending on where you sit the collaboration between writer/director David O. Russell and the acting troupe of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro is either a perfect match of talents or simply an inevitable annual event. The truth is somewhere in between of course and made malleable by individual tastes, but there’s no denying the union has been a fruitful one on the professional side. Their two previous ventures – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle – netted eighteen Oscar nominations including five for the actors (and one win for Lawrence).
So the question wasn’t if they’d return for a third outing, but instead we wondered what that third outing would be about. Where do you go after delivering an offbeat romance and a comic tale of corruption? To a messy tale of a woman and her mop, apparently.
Joy (Lawrence) is living a chaotic and noisy life. She’s a single mother with a dead-end job, a bed-ridden mom (Virginia Madsen) in her house, an ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) in her basement, and a head buzzing with the realization that somewhere along the line she gave up on her childhood dream of becoming an inventor. A flash of inspiration comes one day while cleaning the floor, and suddenly Joy is the proud creator of the self-wringing Miracle Mop.
Numerous obstacles rear their ugly heads in her pursuit of the American Dream, but she’s a strong woman, and with financial help from her father’s (De Niro) girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) and friendly help from her ex she keeps moving forward. The journey leads to a QVC producer (Cooper) and a chance at selling her mop to a national audience on TV, but her efforts are continually hobbled by the greed of family, strangers, and fate alike.
Joy tells people how great her mop is, and they in return agree that her mop is pretty great – but it’s all said with barely a glimpse of the mop itself actually in action. We’re told it’s fantastic, but we never see that it’s fantastic. Joy isn’t a movie about a mop, but this one element is illustrative and indicative of the film’s main problem overall.
Everything – from story turns to emotional beats – is explicitly stated to ensure viewers catch it all. We’re told everything, and far too frequently the result is that we’re rarely given the chance to feel it for ourselves without a character alerting us that we should be outraged, sad, happy, etc. Worse, it’s all told so loudly. Russell loves his families yelling, screaming, and fighting, and there’s no lack of verbal clamor here. His script seems almost entirely focused on that din for the first act before moving Joy and viewers into her quest and the film’s strongest – and possibly only – real bright spot.
Her time spent at QVC gets her away from her generically obnoxious family, and while Cooper does well with his supporting turn here it’s Russell’s efforts that help sell both the early days of the first home shopping network and Joy’s place in them. We see how the channel operated – complete with a brief turn from Melissa Rivers portraying her own mother, Joan – and are witness to Joy’s first taste of real failure and success. Further ups and downs are to come, but this is the only time we’re allowed to feel a part of it.
There’s subtext here about American consumers – Joy’s own family is glued to the television screen, and it’s those same types of people who are targeted by QVC – and while Joy’s life is consciously paired to that of a soap opera, both through its presence on TV and some brief moments of fantasy, we’re cheated out of the two merging together thanks to an odd update of an ending that chooses instead to skip the parts of the story that scream to be visualized and shared. There’s a tracking shot that feels, however briefly, like a short tour through a family reunion photo from The Royal Tenenbaums, and it’s the first and only time we find ourselves interested in Joy’s family.
As sloppy as the narrative is though Russell knows his leading lady is an undeniably powerful presence. Lawrence is still only in her mid-twenties, and portraying older women who’ve lived fuller lives should theoretically be outside of her extended range. She has a fire though, and when combined with her acting talent even our knowledge of her youth falls before her performance.
Joy’s opening title card tells us it’s inspired by true stories of daring women, but it’s nearly two hours before we see this particular strong woman coming into her own, and then the film ends. We walk away unmoved by her story, her family, or her mop, but through it all Lawrence remains.