By watching the trailers for Joy one can easily be fooled into believing the Jennifer Lawrence starring comedy-drama is about nothing. Appearances, of course, can be deceiving, and in this case low-expectations are a good thing: expect a fantastic film. David O. Russell’s latest collaboration with JLaw, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro yields a more down-to-earth and better film than their last foray into the past, American Hustle.
Here’s what the ads don’t tell you: Joy is a semi-autobiographical portrait of Joy Mangano, the divorced mother of two who would go on to invent the Miracle Mop and bring a fortune to her family with her many patented inventions. Russell focuses on Joy’s trials and tribulations as family strife and greed get in the way of her success, practically grounding her prospects before they can even get off the ground.
Supporting Joy are her best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco from Orange is the New Black) and grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), both providing the support she needs to succeed. When everyone else seems to be against her, her basement-dwelling ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), rises to the occasion as an unlikely advisor and supporter.
But for all of Joy’s limited support it seems that those closest to her are responsible for hindering her progress. Her deadbeat stay-at-home mom (Virginia Madsen), far from a role model, spends her days cooped up watching video-taped soap operas. Her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) only crawls home when a girlfriend kicks him out, forcing him to share the basement with Tony, whom he detests.
But even this odd relationship bears fruit; Rudy soon meets his new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who is also Joy’s proud and snarky financier and business adviser. However, Rudy is so endeared by Trudy he often taking her side at the expense of her daughter. Then we have Joy’s bitter sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), who helps her father manage his business. More than quick to draw the negativity card, she believes Joy to be impractical and inexperienced in business matters.
Joy is a much more focused attempt from David O. Russell, a film where he knows exactly where things are headed. With American Hustle Russell covered extensive ground with very little discretion distracting audiences with glitz and glamour substituting for its lack of profundity. Joy has a more complex script that tackles the American Dream headfirst with a quasi-cynical point-of-view set in a dog-eat-dog world where only the toughest survive in a revenue driven world.
As Joy dedicates her life to her business she sinks deeper in debt, and her financial troubles begin to overwhelm her as her enterprise seems to flounder before it has a chance to launch. It also doesn’t help that she appears to be the only financially stable – at first – supporter of the whole family, and her failure could mean the loss of their home.
But the American Spirit is marked by the resilience and tenacity to come out on top, despite the obstacles that imperil the road to success. For Joy these not only include her family – a familiar theme for Russell – but also the many capitalist swindlers that make it nearly impossible for the average ‘nobody’ to succeed: and Joy is most certainly a nobody.
As Russell continues to explore the destructive nature and inability to get along on a familial basis, one needs to recall Marx to come to the conclusion, that, at least in Joy, the family has been stripped of its “sentimental veil, and [has] reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” And that money chase, not just a survivalist necessity, but the desire to be well off without the overhanging cloud of debt, is what moves the capitalist machine.
Capitalism is the name of the game where some sink, others flourish, and the rest struggle somewhere in between. Joy finds herself moving through each of these socioeconomic tiers, dragging her family with her, a group all too ready to latch on as soon as success becomes apparent.
While the fun spirit of American Hustle is mostly absent in Joy, the performances, despite never rising to the level of that film, are adequate enough with Jennifer Lawrence carrying the film with an incredibly resilient and strong performance as the successful matriarch of an idle family.
The supporting cast is in top form, with Ramirez in particularly desperate need of a bigger role as Joy’s ex-husband. Virginia Madsen as the recluse mother is played with quiet sedentary perfection and obtuseness. Bradley Cooper makes an appearance, of course, in what’s by far his smallest role in the three Russell films he’s appeared in. Cooper is buried about an hour in, playing an executive from QVC – the home shopping cable channel – who reluctantly gives Joy a chance to introduce the the Miracle Mop to the world. It’s no surprise that anything Cooper touches turns to gold and his minor appearance here is no exception.
Joy is yet another fascinating ensemble piece from director David O. Russell, who continues to prove why he’s one of the best American auteurs working today, and his familiar troupe of famous faces. Here is a film that manages to capture the truest spirit of the American Dream amidst the turmoil of a dysfunctional family and the forces that limit the individual from success. Like its titular character, Joy proves that one can rise above the noise and become one of the best pictures of the year.