It’s that time of the year again. Time for clamorous hangovers, spurious resolutions, and David O. Russell’s semi-annual dysfunctional family drama.
2014 gave us family and criminality (American Hustle), 2012 gave us family and mental illness (Silver Linings Playbook), and in 2010 he paired up family and boxing (The Fighter). In 2016, it’s Joy, which, though it features many of the usual Russell players, is less an ensemble piece about family than one woman’s struggle to overcome hers. Russell’s other cinematic families have often been unlikable, but this lot aren’t so much nuclear as simply toxic.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a hardworking divorced mum whose two kids are the least of her worries. Her neurotic mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), is holed up in the downstairs study endlessly watching soap operas and clogging up the pipes. Her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), an aspiring lounge singer, is living in the basement rent free; shortly to be joined by Joy’s newly homeless father, Rudy (Robert De Niro). Her older sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), is a hypercritical shrew. Even Joy’s investor, widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), has more entitlement than business acumen. The only truly supportive person in Joy’s life is Mimi (Dianne Ladd), her maternal grandmother, who fondly recalls her granddaughter’s creativity as a child.
It takes a seafaring incident involving red wine and broken glass to bring out that side of her again. Before too long she’s broken out the crayons and invented the Miracle Mop — the world’s first self-wringing mop and a product that, had Joy’s family had their way, would never have made it off the page. The film portrays Joy’s struggle to secure funding, a manufacturer, a distributor — all the while battling against a steady barrage of bad advice and general negativity.
Joy is as much an unabashed celebration of the American Dream as it is Joy’s own journey towards success. The scenes set at the studios where they film the home-shopping infomercials in which Joy gets her big break are suffused with an idyllic glow. Each set, sweeping by in succession on a revolving stage, is a symbol of what home life can be, instead of, say, the embodiment of empty consumerism. The world of business may be brutal and uncompromising, but this at least is pure.
Joy is a film where catharsis involves firing off a shotgun and reinvention merely requires a stylish new haircut, sunglasses, a leather jacket, and the will to go on regardless. However, the film, like Joy herself, is too often trapped by smothering domesticity without the freewheeling, improvisational energy that elevated American Hustle beyond its Scorsese-inflected gangsterism.
Though the film plays with time — flashbacks to paper dioramas and childhood trauma, and flash-forwards to her future patent empire — it never quite achieves a feeling of genuine flow. Like Bradley Cooper’s business executive Neil Walker, it’s too careful and conservative to make much an impression — there are no scenes here likely to linger long in the memory.
Whatever the flaws of the film that surrounds her, Lawrence is utterly convincing as an earnest every-woman who goes from careworn breadwinner to stone-cold businesswoman, charting a course through self-doubt and financial ruin. In fact, it’s this self-same relatability that help makes her such a roaring success. Still, by the time Joy tells someone never to speak on her behalf again you half expect someone to kiss the ring and call her “Don” (perhaps not coincidentally the film’s working title was ‘Kay’s Baptism’).
Throw in a seasonal soundtrack, and Joy — billed as “Inspired by true stories of daring woman” — makes for a neat, little festive package, if not much else.