Since exiting Director’s Jail with 2010’s The Fighter, David O Russell has made a series of comedy dramas around eclectic families that have succeeded with critics, award bodies and audiences. Whilst not enough to land him back in the Filmic Hoosegow, Joy is unsatisfying enough to warrant at least a catch up by the Cinematic Probation Service.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a single mother of two with a dead end job and a chaotic home life. She shares a house with her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), eccentric mother Terri (Virginia Madsen) grandmother Mimi (Diana Ladd) and, after another failed romance, her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro). But as Mimi keeps telling her, Joy is destined for greater things. After an incident on a boat owned by Rudy’s latest squeeze Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), Joy begins work on a new design of mop that will change her fortunes.
The problems begin early on with an inconsistent tone that flips between fairy tale like flashbacks, stabs at wacky family house share comedy and straight drama about the problems of creating a successful business. Not helping mediate this mishmash of genres is an ineffectual narration by Mimi that lends no insight into proceedings. These failings cause Joy to stumble into the No Man’s Land of ‘Dramedies’, not being funny enough as a comedy or having enough emotional resonance to be an effective drama. Whereas Russell’s great The Fighter managed to ring laughs and drama out of one man’s attempts to achieve success in spite of his family’s attempts to sabotage them. Joy, by comparison, has the odd family squabble mixed with discussions of mop tensile strength. Though it’s fairly clear her family don’t have her best interests at heart, it’s only in the final act that Joy discovers this and the scene doesn’t have the cathartic impact it should.
Russell has cited Citizen Kane and The Godfather as touchstones for Joy but he falls well short of such lofty ambitions. The extent of their influence on screen seems merely to ape Kane’s famous childhood remembrance of ‘Rosebud’ to no real avail and a Michael Corleone alike ‘Never ask me about my business, Kay’ confrontation between Joy and her sister. Not only do these attempts come across as a poor cover version of a classic standard, they further underline how hollow Joy is. Kane and Godfather are two of the most influential and lauded critiques of American capitalism and its corrosive impact upon those who ascend its heights. Joy doesn’t have that same thematic thrust but nor does it take the chance to subvert it and underline that Joy is able to retain her humanity as she makes mad mop money.
If Russell didn’t have such a talented cast with him, Joy would be far less watchable than it is. Having said that, he is unable to get the most out of his ensemble as he has in previous efforts. Lawrence turns in a typically good turn, conveying Joy’s inner strength and her earnest attempts to keep her family together. Edgar Ramirez is decent value as her lounge singer ex and he and Lawrence share a nice moment of singing together, even if it does seem from an entirely different movie. De Niro’s early appearance is amusing, his comedic frustration reminiscent of Midnight Run, but then fizzles as the film goes along. The rest of the cast veer into caricature, with Elisabeth Röhm as Joy’s envious step sister and Virginia Madsen’s absent minded Terry being particular low points.
The film’s most successful stretch is when Joy gets the chance to pitch her product to the nascent QVC network and its executive Neil Walker, as played by Bradley Cooper. Having a focal point after all the freewheeling that preceded it, the film is able to chart the launch of the Miracle Mop and its eventual success in an entertaining way. If the film had followed Annie Mumolo’s original screenplay for a straightforward biopic of Joy Mangano’s real life, if Russell had broken his mould or broken fresh ground as Joy herself did, it would have been a far better film.
Joy is in UK cinemas since 1st January 2016