Joy might be as close as David O. Russell has come to making a women’s picture in the mold of the classics of the genre, such as Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas. In many of those films, a plucky and persevering heroine, usually of working-class origin, pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made herself a success despite the odds against her, and usually at the cost of either her sanity, her reputation, or her lineage (the two previously mentioned films feature mothers who sacrifice themselves for their daughters in different ways, only to have the sacrifice result in a deterioration of the bond itself). There is a dark edge to most women’s pictures, which either is ultimately redeemed, or not, but which allies the genre to the film noir and the psychological thriller. (Indeed, Mildred Pierce was adapted from a novel by James M. Cain). Russell’s film shares the plucky heroine, and the blue-collar roots, but has little of the dark edge. Oh, there is plenty of seeming skulduggery in the tale, what with a jealous step-sister, a cut-throat mother-in-law to be, and a scheming Texas moneyman, all of whom want to claim what Joy has made for herself, but the difference is that in the earlier films, the darkness clung to the heroine, and contaminated her psyche. Although usually redeemed in the end, the heroines of those films went through moments of spiritual abandonment, self-questioning, and outright mental torment in the quest to achieve what had often been a status reserved for men. Not so Joy; she has moments of frustration, and discouragement, self-doubt like many of us do, but she always rises above and, by sheer force of will and self-confidence, steamrolls all opposition, always finding, as in another of Russell’s films, a page in her playbook that will lay claim to the silver lining. Unlike the character in Silver Linings Playbook, Joy is not an outsider in any way but circumstance, and the film chronicles, in a kind of soap opera meets Horatio Alger fashion, her continual ascent, with virtue and verve winning out in the end. It makes the tale rather straightforward, and although not uninteresting, gives it a strangely static quality. While some commentators have raised an eyebrow at an entire film being structured around a woman who invented a mop, that detail is one of the main links to the older films in this genre – like Mildred Pierce with her pancakes, Joy and her mop are humble symbols of female frustration taken up as talismans of power. All the same, Joy is not Mildred Pierce, and so it falls onto the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence to make us care about the fate of this woman’s endeavor, as the melodramatics fall short of the task.
Yes, this is the story of the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Russell begins the tale with an intergenerational framing device, as grandma Mimi (the somehow expected Diane Ladd) narrates Joy’s childhood and signals to us that, from an early age, she was exceptional, always full of drive and entrepreneurial imagination. (Thanks be for another film with voice-over narration this year. When all else fails, tell us how it is, filmmakers). Joy’s ambitions are snuffed out by Mom (Virginia Madsen) and Dad (Robert De Niro), with Dad quite explicitly tearing her dreams to shreds in a moment of pique. Joy doesn’t go to college, but stays home to tend to Mom, who has suffered a nervous breakdown because of her disintegrated marriage, and stays in bed all day, addicted to a soap opera that the movie tries to draw into parallel with the drab everyday of the characters (with mixed results). By the time Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) takes center stage away from granny’s gabbing, she is living in her childhood home with her mother, her ex-husband, her children, and suddenly her father, trying to support them all with her quite average income. While stressed, she is, as Mimi tells us, the calm eye in the center of the hurricane of craziness that is her family. Dad meets a new love interest, the rich widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), and it is aboard Trudy’s yacht that inspiration strikes Joy. A wine bottle breaks, and in her attempt to clean the resulting mess off of Trudy’s precious teak deck, Joy cuts her hands on the shards as she tries to wring wine from the mop. While picking the broken glass from her palms later, she has a eureka moment, and immediately retreats to her daughter’s bedroom (and to the creative, free zone of her own childhood’s inspiration) and mocks up a mop that is self-wringing, eliminating the need for touching gross stuff. With the encouragement of Mimi, and of her steadfast best friend (Dascha Polanco) and supportive ex-husband (Édgar Ramirez), Joy builds a prototype and convinces Trudy to invest in her plans. Initially unsuccessful, with Trudy and schadenfreude hungry step-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) nipping at her heels, Joy manages to snag a meeting with QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) thanks to her ex-husband’s connections. Initially unsuccessful again, due to a botched pitch by a clueless pitchman, Joy strong-arms Neil into letting her pitch the mop to millions herself, and despite (or perhaps because of) her inexperience in the realm of T.V. fakery, she makes the mop a success. Not all is well, however, because Peggy botches a crucial deal, and Trudy, having given bad legal advice early, has locked Joy into a losing business deal with her manufacturer. So in the climax of the film, Joy goes to California, confronts the manufacturer, and then the Texas heavy hitter behind the scenes, to claim her rightful patent, her molds, eventually walking away rich and righteous. In the denouement, we see a kind of Dickensian still life, with Dad, old, frail, and wearing a rather nasty eye patch, and Peggy, looking like a mourner at a wake, washed up, we are told by Mimi from beyond the grave, done in by greed after having attempted to claim Joy’s success as their own. Joy sits behind a big polished desk in her McMansion, attended to by her faithful friend and her ex, as she nobly ushers other young strivers along the road to success she had to roughly hoe out for herself. Yay!
The movie winds up feeling slight because it is so empty of the oddball complexity usually featured in Russell’s films. He keeps the camera moving, and the characters yapping, and throws in some extraneous, and often funny, bits of “meaning” (as in the aforementioned attempts at allegory with Mom’s soap opera), but compared to previous works of weirdness like I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings, it is quite pat. Without the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, who is naturally winning, and who does make us root for Joy, and hiss at the villainous money-grubbers who dare step in her way, we would be rolling our eyes in many spots. We can instinctively understand the appeal of the material for Russell, as his great theme, at least since The Fighter, has been the downtrodden outsider who instinctively understands the system better than the insiders, and fights his or her way to the top. Russell enjoys digging through the rather more unseemly parts of our capitalist, aspirational society, a kind of poet of the glamour of mundane consumption and hoary striving (the chief theme of American Hustle). And since he has a good eye, and also good taste for lumpy, bumpy protagonists weird enough for us to identify with and be fascinated by, he usually, like his heroes, carries the day because of, rather than despite, his unevenness. But what does he have to say about any of his great themes? It is hard to tell. I Heart Huckabees succeeded as an absurd parody of our acquisitive imaginary (and nothing in his work has ever topped Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert trading mud-dunks over a log in the woods), but The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle are all, underneath the zippy camerawork, snappy dialogue, and weirdo charmers, very, very conventional films. His style makes Russell look like a loving critic of the culture he portrays, but is he critical, or just loving it? What is he actually saying about being an outsider, or about our breed of later-day capitalist desire? I can’t tell. Joy continues in this tradition of convincing us all that we, weirdos to the person, have a chance at success if we just go with our gut and believe, but, more so than his previous films, the entertainment quotient doesn’t quite carry us through. Would we consider him an auteur without Jennifer Lawrence’s considerable talents? These days, no. David O. Russell makes films that are considerably entertaining, but his films have also been, for the last 10 years, flaccid and easy in retrospect even as they seem sharp and incisive in the moment. What happened to the skeptical cynic who made Spanking the Monkey? I miss that guy.