REVIEW: Joy [2015]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 124 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): David O. Russell
Writer(s): David O. Russell / David O. Russell & Annie Mumolo (story)

“No, I don’t need a prince”

There’s a reason you don’t hear “Mangano” throughout David O. Russell‘s supposed biography of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano and it’s because Joy isn’t real. Whether original scribe Annie Mumolo intended this aesthetic—she reportedly fought tooth and nail to retain her credit—or Russell retooled its tone, what could have been an empowering rags-to-riches drama proves a hyper-stylized comic fairy tale instead. So when Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) attending a professional business meeting introducing herself to people she hopes will take a chance on her ideas, just saying “Joy” becomes very telling. Russell thrusts this character into a Cinderella-esque family of chaotic jealousy and ignorance, mirrors every conscious desire to succeed with literal soap opera hysterics on TV, and paints the whole as a dying old woman’s dream.

This makes for an entertaining film if not one without any true purpose for existing. It plays with details of Mangano’s life whether it be that she has three children and not two or that she actually did go to college instead of staying home to care for a delusional mother trapped by her television set (Virginia Madsen‘s Terry) and a never-satisfied father who needed her smarts and kindness to keep his business afloat (Robert De Niro‘s Rudy). It caricatures those in her life to diminish what would otherwise appear a volatile, co-dependent existence which risks choking the breath directly from Joy’s lungs. The farce, while intended to push Joy to the brink of finally saving herself from those weighing her down, turns a captivating story into make-believe.

To me this tonal shift from reality into the very overwrought machinations of soap stars beginning the film—what a weird juxtaposition of actual daytime stars Donna Mills, John Enos III, Maurice Benard, and Susan Lucci hamming up bad stereotypes more than their actual careers ever did against a dedication to “the stories of strong women”—makes it utterly fail its mission. Rather than let Lawrence’s Joy be a badass who takes control of her life like anyone out there can, Russell transforms the world around her into a fantasy land of over-the-top, unwitting villains twirling their mustaches before she can reach within for the will to overcome like some grandiose superhero origin story. Why must Mangano’s life of immense success be rendered a cartoon?

The only answer I can come up with is that our narrator (Diane Ladd as Joy’s Mimi) is slowly devolving into a state of dementia to merge the televised fictions her daughter Terry enjoys from bed with the hopeless optimism she always felt for her granddaughter in reality. Mimi is the one who told Joy she could be anything she wanted, a woman who spent years watching those around her squeeze this girl’s imagination into extinction. For almost two decades Joy has played mother to her kids, her shut-in mom, her immature dad, and the man she divorced who remains tethered to her in the basement (Édgar Ramírez‘s Tony). The light of creativity that once flowed through her hands was extinguished by life’s tragic ability to muck everything up.

But Russell again simplifies things by chalking everything up to a fight during Terry and Rudy’s divorce that ruined a paper dollhouse Joy created inside a shoebox. This is somehow his metaphor for disillusionment and the first step in her entire family discovering that she could be an easy target to walk over. There must be one hundred better ways to set up the fact that Joy exists at her rock bottom than belittle the curse with easy laughs. This isn’t satire; it’s the story of a person still living today. So why does it feel so false? Why does it feel like Joy made a deal with the devil by way of Rudy’s new beau Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and her extreme distortion of business acumen?

I thought things were finally going to get on track once the QVC years of Mangano’s life arrived. But even though the middle third of Joy is its best with the titular inventor going for broke alongside the ever-caring Tony and best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) to win over the channel’s director of inventory (Bradley Cooper‘s Neil), the dumbing down of content and juvenile repetition of dialogue continues. The entire business aspect of what Joy does to become an industry magnate is shortened to “friends in commerce” versus “adversaries in commerce” and who is willing to pick up the gun. What appears stupid little Cracker Jack box rhetoric coming from Rossellini’s out-of-touch rich widow’s mouth somehow attempts legitimacy exiting Cooper’s later on. Sorry, but it’s impossible to swallow.

The only character that doesn’t become whittled down into a joke-y two-dimensional obstruction is Joy. I like Russell and have championed his critical darling renaissance despite my favorite work remaining I Heart Huckabees, but I have to give Lawrence complete credit for somehow finding a way to elevate her role above the overwritten nonsense swirling around her. The fight she endures is inspiring and to watch her subtly breakdown on stage when her dreams come true proved a tough moment to retain my own composure. Even when the switch flips and she realizes just how cruel her family has been in sabotaging everything—Elisabeth Röhm as step-sister Peggy is the epitome of wickedness—I still believed in her reckless and dangerous actions. I wanted her to succeed.

For some reason, however, this film feels like Russell thought the real Joy Mangano’s success was merely a cute anecdote. “Look at the girl who actually made it. That laughable fairy tale women tell themselves about being equal to men came true. Let’s not give them any ideas by setting our take of it in our world, though. We’ll just keep things under patronizing artifice.” His public comment about “believing in the spirit” of Jennifer’s call for equal wages rather than out-right supporting it makes much more sense now. As does the prevailing idea Russell is a misogynist from way before his tirade opposite Lily Tomlin. If even half of what he depicts here is true, Joy Mangano’s actual history does seem engrossing. This, however, isn’t it.

[1] Jennifer Lawrence in JOY. Photo credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox – TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[2] Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in JOY. Photo credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox – TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[3] Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro in JOY. Photo credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox – TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

One Thought to “REVIEW: Joy [2015]”

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