20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David O. Russell. Produced by John Davis, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Ken Mok, David O. Russell. Screenplay by David O. Russell; story by Annie Mumolo, David O. Russell. Music by West Dylan Thordson, David Campbell. Photographed by Linus Sandgren. Production designed by Judy Becker. Costumes designed by Michael Wilkinson. Edited by Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, Christopher Tellefsen. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper, Elisabeth Röhm.
There’s one scene in Joy that really works, and it’s when Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), the inventor of the Miracle Mop, is given a tour of fledgling shopping channel QVC by passionate network executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). As he stands between a live studio broadcast and a bank of manned phones, he whispers into Joy’s ear and conducts the entire process with musical precision: a symphony for sales pitch and telephone. The camera swirls around Cooper as Lawrence watches the sales numbers rise, awestruck, and for a moment the movie achieves a feverish intensity. “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every day,” whispers Neil, and the moment nicely underlines the point.
For most of its runtime, unfortunately, Joy is a repetitive, messy slog. It’s a surprising misstep from director David O. Russell, whose films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) usually possess thunderous self-confidence, even as they juggle complex tones and tricky (dare I say sometimes unlikable?) characters. This one feels terribly uncertain: its drama is misshapen, its comedy never surpasses the level of an awkwardly handled sitcom, and its storytelling is clunky and unconvincing. For a biopic of a person who invented a mop, the movie cant even seem to declare its status as one, opening with a title card where it claims to be “inspired by all powerful women, but especially one in particular.” Huh? This is Russell’s third collaboration with genuine movie star Jennifer Lawrence (after Silver Linings and Hustle), but this time she is miscast and his movie seriously doesn’t work.
Lawrence is a gifted actress and does what she can with Joy, but we don’t buy her here–playing ten years her senior as a real-life person with two kids, no money, crushed dreams and an overbearing family all too willing to suck her dry. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) spends all day in bed watching soap operas (which Russell constantly cuts back to for both unfunny parody and ham-fisted commentary). Dad (Robert DeNiro) moves into Joy’s basement to bicker with her already-living-there ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), while grandmom (Diane Ladd) frets. That’s what her character is. Person who frets. There’s also Joy’s perpetually sour stepsister (Elisabeth Röhm), who alternates between making bad choices and then glowering at Joy from the sidelines of medium shots. Joy is put-upon and depressed, but it all changes when she invents a self-wringing mop with thick cotton strands–its a revolutionary product that could change homes forever, but she has to get it manufactured and sold: enter Walker at QVC (and Joy helps herself out by ultimately appearing on the network herself to hawk her own product). And then there’s a seemingly endless chain of third-party manufacturers willing to cheat Joy out of her money.
Aside from the QVC scenes, which have a vibrant energy, the movie divides its attention between familial squabbles and murkily explained business decisions. Joy’s family (which grows when Isabella Rossellini enters the picture as dad’s wealthy new lover) puts up cash to invest in her dreams, but they’re only sporadically supportive and they’re all too willing to imagine, verbalize, and even create some worst case scenarios for her. The manufacturers, meanwhile, keep siphoning money for mysterious settlements, undefined expenses, and phony patents. Despite a pre-sold run of 50,000 mops, Joy faces utter destitution thanks in no small part to her dim-witted family.
There are pieces here of a good story about innovation, and about how that forces you to grapple with poisonous influences in a dysfunctional family. It could work just fine as a focused character study. The film, however, (with a script by Russell) has supreme difficulty paying attention to itself. Characters are introduced and then vanish, or sometimes they appear without being introduced. Whole subplots are unceremoniously dropped, crucial issues are brought up and then not dealt with, details are glossed over, and even primary characters feel ill-defined, possessing motivations we can’t determine and making decisions we can’t explain. Were there a lot of severe cuts made here? Perhaps; how else to explain the presence of four (yes, four) different editors? Joy has the desperate whiff of a production where egos trumped all other planning, and quickly went off the rails in a huge way. And unfortunately, the whole thing is made a little painful by Russell’s fatally overripe dialogue that rarely feels human, let alone genuine.
The biggest problem with Joy’s storytelling, though, is…Joy. She’s a fundamentally flat character, and her story overall lacks emotional heft, right up to its ineffectual climax. It’s always sad when a story based on true events feels built out of shopworn cliches, but that’s what we get here, complete with the dramatic hair-cutting scene, the “oh gosh, I have stage fright” scene, the teary-eyed deathbed scene, and maudlin narration that lends not a darn thing to the proceedings except a couple of accidental laughs. The film’s dramatics are so shallow that they never fully conceptualize Joy: she’s not a character we end up caring about. Not that the other actors fare better – Cooper’s barely in it, DeNiro sleepwalks through his role, Madsen seems unable to make heads or tails out of her character, and the less said about the wooden Elisabeth Röhm, the better.
Russell’s cast has some great actors in it, and he himself is a formidable director with serious skill. But Joy is a pretty disappointing misfire: a cluttered, lead-footed character study that never gets a solid grip on what it wants to do, or how to get there. It’s certainly possible that the inventor of the Miracle Mop deserved her story to be told in a good movie. Maybe some day we’ll get one.