Published Dec 21, 2015For some, it may be hard to imagine a movie about a single mother and entrepreneur's struggle to bring a revolutionary household product out of her home and into the hands of millions of Americans being particularly riveting, but that's exactly what screenwriter Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids) and director David O. Russell have done here with the character-driven, decidedly female-focused Joy. They succeed for the most part, creating an audacious story that allows the film's lead, Jennifer Lawrence, to show the same acting range she did in the same director's Silver Linings Playbook.
Right off the bat, it's clear that this story is different from the ones Russell has worked on in the past. From Flirting with Disaster onward, Russell's work has always been chiefly concerned with depicting families and their weird, sometimes aggressively unhealthy dynamics, but Joy is his first feature carried by and focused on a female character.
We're introduced to Joy (Lawrence), a young woman living with her bed-ridden mother (Virginia Madsen), a doting grandmother who loves her (Diane Ladd), a half-sister who hates her (Elisabeth Röhm), an ex-husband who still lives in the basement (Édgar Ramírez), their two children, and the man who thinks he's in charge of them all, Rudy (Robert De Niro), a hot-tempered nitwit whose constant excuse for his actions seems to be that he doesn't know any better.
With Ladd acting as narrator, some background information is given about Joy's once picturesque, Cinderella-like Long Island existence (complete with white picket fence, house and snow-strewn lawn, all used to show how pristine her life once was). Joy's grandmother told her she could do and be anything, but things change when Rudy comes home one day after work, declares he's divorcing her mother and ruins the handmade dollhouse that Joy describes as being the source of her power, symbolically destroying their whole household in the process.
Flash-forward a number of years later and Joy — a gifted academic once at the top of her class — is seen working the desk for a discount airline at a local airport, trying to keep her family and home from falling apart in the off hours. Things take a turn one afternoon aboard Rudy's new girlfriend's (Isabella Rossellini) boat when Joy's ex-husband accidentally breaks a bottle of red wine and she's tasked with wringing out a glass-filled mop to clean it up. Her hands are severely lacerated and later, once she finds out her hours at work have been greatly diminished, Joy falls into a stressed-out semi-sleep and awakens with an idea: to create the world's first-ever self-wringing mop (the Miracle Mop, an undervalued and constantly mimicked 20th century product). We're shown her progression from would-be inventor to full-blown millionaire, and it's enthralling.
Not that there aren't a few missteps along the way. Joy has been billed as a strong ensemble film, what with De Niro and Bradley Cooper, as well as Lawrence, trying to strike Oscar and Golden Globe gold again in another Russell picture. Not all of them will succeed — De Niro gets little screen time and Cooper falls flat for the most part (aside for one climactic scene in which he shows Joy the ropes of the QVC home shopping network, which his character runs). That has a lot to do with Lawrence's portrayal (every performer is bound to pale in comparison to her bright performance), which in the film's second half means showing Joy's growth as a businessperson, and an equally deft and badass one at that (what with her misdemeanour crimes and skills at negotiating with and destroying the competition).
Still, Mumolo and Russell have taken a true story (one of the best somewhat untold ones in recent memory), weaved it into a truly fantastical tale, and placed one of the best actresses of the decade in its lead role. It's a film that, for all its seemingly mundane depictions of product fabrication, patents and the legal issues that come with them, commands your attention, and although it may be glossed over come awards season, it's certainly one of the more thoughtful and engaging features coming out over the holidays.
(Twentieth Century Studios)