Several reviews have described David O. Russell’s ninth feature film, Joy, and its titular character as ‘an empowering role model for women’ or something of that ilk. The problem is that for this to be true, the film would have to provide an inkling of realism. It doesn’t. It’s not exactly clear what Joy tries to be, but serious feminist drama it ain’t. The thing that comes closest is probably a fairy tale, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it does take away from the impact of the film’s supposed message. It’s sort of a screwball comedy that wants to be an epic drama too, throws in some magical realism, and ends up a tonal mess. Of course, this is not the first David O. Russell film that has problems with tone, but he has never been as tone-deaf before as here.
Joy is loosely based on the story of Joy Mangano (played by Jennifer Lawrence), the single mother who invented the Miracle Mop that made her a fortune and laid the foundations of a business empire. This classic ‘American dream’ story charts Joy’s rocky road to success, overcoming several obstacles on a crash course in running a business. A single mother of two (though her ex-husband Tony, portrayed by Édgar Ramirez, lives in her basement), she shares her home with her soap opera-junkie mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) and her supportive grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd). As if running a household and working a job isn’t hard enough, her life gets even more complicated when her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) joins the household, with all the tension it brings. Her fortunes seem to change when she invents a revolutionary mop and with the backing of her father and his new girfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) starts her own business. After a rough start, her big break comes when she meets with Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive at the QVC home shopping channel. Walker gives her the opportunity to sell her Miracle Mop on television, and after a botched first attempt Joy takes matters into her own hands and becomes an instant success. But it turns out the business advice Rudy and Trudy have given her might not be as sound as it seemed.
Joy fails on several levels. For one, the editing is all over the place, likely the result of having four editors work on the film and trying to finish it before awards season started. As a result, the film feels rushed and unfocused. No wonder Joy feels so tired, since scenes pile on top of each other at breakneck speed, introducing characters half of whom should not even be in the film, yet she has to be in all of these scenes. Transitions between scenes are rough, shots not properly established or finished, and the film is riddled with continuity errors, with people magically moving from one place to another between shots.
Russell’s direction is scattershot, in particular where it concerns his actors and mise-en-scene. In many cases actors just stand around, their only reason to be in a scene being to push Joy forward. At one point, Rudy and Trudy force Joy to take a second mortgage on her house because of all the debt she is accumulating. She walks out of her dad’s office, where Tony and her friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) follow on cue through her father’s body shop, feeding her the exact lines she needs to hear. She heads outside, yet they don’t follow her: their part in this scene is done. It feels straight out of the Bitch, I’m Madonna video. Supporting characters are mostly reduced to talking props with nothing more than an expository function. When Rudy urges Joy to sign bankruptcy papers, he tells her that he has a notary “standing right outside the door.” Sure enough, the notary is literally right behind the door, stepping in as soon as Rudy opens it. And these are just two examples in a long string of them.
Half of the supporting characters are waste that should have been left on the editing room floor. Why are we introduced to Touissant the plumber, who has a fling with Joy’s mother off-screen? In fact, why was Joy’s mother in the film? Why did we need to be introduced to Jackie’s boyfriend, and why was he also in the room for the first QVC sale? Even Jackie herself could have been condensed into the Mimi character, which would also make the bond between Joy and her grandma feel as tight as the film purports it to be. And where did Joy’s son go for most of the film? Russell rewrote Annie Mumolo’s original screenplay, and somewhere along that process it took on so much ballast that it doesn’t fit in the two-hour running time, leaving no time for logic or a proper setup of scenes. That’s how you get Mimi narrating the film, pointing out things that are already explicitly shown or repeated almost verbatim by characters. That’s also how you get her telling her granddaughter’s story, even if she herself dies halfway through it (yet inexplicably shows up at her own funeral). All logic is out the door, which is fine if this were a fairy tale, but given the fact that Mumolo’s script stayed much closer to Mangano’s real story, one would think Russell aimed for at least some realism.
Which brings us back to the tone. What is this film? De Niro and Rossellini seem to think it’s a screwball comedy. Madsen wanders around in a Wes Anderson film. Ramirez, Ladd and Röhm (as Joy’s sister Peggy, another unnecessary character) are in straight drama mode, and Cooper’s wide-eyed smile suggests he is in a romantic comedy, and the way he is introduced seems to suggest that, or at least a larger part. Yet he’s only really there for two big sales scenes and then he is left behind, because we have to move on to the next obstacle in Joy’s business career. He was just another means to an end, helping Joy overcome a hurdle. Hurdle taken, exit character. Contrivance upon contrivance, until it all falls apart at the end when Joy is forced into bankruptcy. Defeated and in tears, she tells her daughter that the world destroys your dreams. Cut to Joy giving herself a new haircut, going through stacks of files, and flying to Texas to set things right. All in one night. Where did this renewed determination suddenly come from? Contrived, bad screenwriting, that’s where.
Jennifer Lawrence has to carry the film mostly on her own, and does so competently. Still somewhat bland as an actress, her highlights are the scenes on the QVC set, where her chemistry with the film’s acting MVP, Bradley Cooper, shines through. Elsewhere, a lack of conviction in her eyes belies a full understanding of her character, something that has marred previous performances as well. Still, Joy is her best work since her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, and the fact that she does manage to hold a film as rambling as this together is no mean feat. Her spunkiness is a good match for Russell’s zaniness, even if she can’t quite sell the more dramatic moments. She saves Joy’s business, but she can’t save Joy, which lacks coherency and focus, and is too much of a tonal catastrophe to make sense.