Joy is a testament to what can happen when a director and actor fully believe in one another’s creative abilities. David O. Russell has found his muse in Jennifer Lawrence, and with their third consecutive pairing they have delivered an aggressively written and brilliantly funny ode to strong women. Unfortunately, its parts are better than the completed feature, and it’s hard to not believe a better film may have been left in the editing bay trash.
Told over the span of four generations, Joy follows a divorced mother (Jennifer Lawrence) who learns to live for herself after decades of bending over backwards to keep her family together. She is overworked, under appreciated, and far too busy caring for everyone else to consider many longterm plans. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) and children live with her, as well as her ex-husband who is still trying to make his dreams of being a singer come true. There is also her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), who moves in shortly after the movie begins on account of his current girlfriend no longer being able to stand his irreverent behavior.
One day Joy awakes with a vision of an innovation in mop technology. She develops a prototype, seeks funding from her father’s latest girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini in her coldest role to date), and sets to making her dream a reality. The belief she will succeed is low, as Joy has never been in control of anything in her life, but Joy does not care. She believes in her idea, and she does not allow her lack of business experience prevent her from trying to do something great for her family. When opportunity finally knocks, Joy not only answers, but she breaks the door down for herself and women like her in ways she never could have imagined. It all comes with a cost however, and the ripple effect caused by Joy’s success threatens to tear apart the fabric of family she spent her life holding together.
A line of text that flashes on screen at the top of Joy proclaims the film to be inspired by stories of strong women, and to its credit the film showcases various forms of strong women brought to life with similarly great performances. Lawrence is the star of the show, and though she is arguably far too young to be the true inventor of the Miracle Mop (who created the device at age 30) she commands the screen in every scene. Her compassion may be present in her action, but her strength comes through when she opens her mouth. Joy is a thinker, a fighter, a creator, and a mother, capable of doling out witticisms just as well as bold-faced business talk. Her faith in herself is her greatest quality, and the performance of Lawrence equally speaks to the power of confidence in one’s own self.
Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, both familiar faces in the catalog of David O. Russell, deliver impressive supporting turns in Joy. Neither is given the screen time the film’s lengthy promotional campaign may have lead audiences to believe, but their small roles have a large impact on Joy’s character arc. These men are the ones who challenge Joy in the way needed to push her to realize her full potential. They each live to regret this in their own way, and that is where the real juice of the story is found. Joy is not out to appease the men of the world, or even to prove herself to them. She’s doing what she does to make a better life for her family, and it’s through the pure motivation that she is able to succeed in ways her on-screen counterparts cannot.
Russell has never disappointed from a visual standpoint, and Joy is no exception. Every frame is filled with beautiful imagery and meaningful staging. The problems arise in the editing, which forces the story to feel far more disconnected than necessary, especially in the sluggish first act. Nearly 30 minutes pass before the story moves forward even the slightest bit, and though the performances are strong throughout the lack of progression is painfully evident. It’s clear the film wishes to establish its characters with meaningful backstories, but it’s all delivered in such a hurried blur of color and time jumps that nothing is able to linger long enough to fully sink in with the viewer. Joy clearly led a full life before we met her, but how she went from the happy-go-lucky lady that met her husband on a night out with her best friend to the frustrated woman we meet at the top of the story remains unclear. The same can be said for other past experiences in the life of the Mangano, which come and go in passing mention without ever being fully realized.
With beautiful cinematography and powerful performances, Joy should have been a guaranteed awards contender, but sloppy editing and muddy storytelling makes for a decidedly underwhelming feature. It’s all pretty and fun until you realize David O. Russell never stops long enough to develop much, if any, dramatic weight to the events that occur in the latter half of the film. Maybe it’s too short, running just 124 minutes, but the greater problem seems to be a script that revels in sizzle over substance. Watching Joy is a lot like reading the lyrics for a song you enjoy and realizing the words being used are basically nonsense. The reason you love the track is entirely due to the melody, which takes otherwise useless phrases and gives them special meaning. In Joy, the combination of Russell and Lawrence is the melody, and everything else is just lucky to be included.