Written by Annie Mumolo & David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
In 1990, Joy Mangano found that her life has not gone how she wished. As a little girl, she invented things and had such a creative mind. As a result of her parents’ divorce, her marriage ending, and an overwhelming tide of financial hardship Joy is at a turning point. A trip on her father’s girlfriend’s boat leads her to a serendipitous moment, the invention of a new self-wringing mop, with a mop head of 300 continuous feet of cotton with the ability to be detached and run through the washing machine. To make her invention a success it will take many risks and Joy ends up putting her neck on the line for a spot on QVC. However, she is a determined woman who will do whatever it takes to raise herself from a fate of mediocrity.
Joy is a complete and utter disaster of a film. Having recently come off a rewatch of American Hustle and the first viewing of Silver Linings Playbook I had high hopes for this low rated movie. What I found was a tonally bizarre picture which failed to tell the story it claims you need to hear and ends up being profoundly thematically unbalanced. I get that director David O. Russell is attempting to be stylish and inject a sense of whimsy into the true story of Joy and her invention, but the result is embarrassingly bad. There are moments of genuine humor and lot of interest ideas being presented, but the number of characters introduced and never developed as well as dialogue that is painfully on the nose left me disappointed at Russell for this one. It felt like Russell couldn’t make up his mind about how he wanted to present this story and these characters while he was filming and tried to fix things in editing, which typically makes a bad movie even worse.
I understand that Russell saw Jennifer Lawrence as a muse during this period, casting her a supporting role in American Hustle and co-starring with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. Lawrence played both those roles exceptionally well, especially for how young she was at the time. However, I don’t buy her gravitas as Joy, but that could have a lot to do with how dreadfully underwritten every other character is in this movie. You have a cast that includes Robert DeNiro, Gena Rowlands, Isabella Rossellini, and Virginia Madsen among others and Russell wastes them. Rowlands inclusion and subsequent lack of a meaty role are particularly upsetting. She acts as the narrating grandmother of the film, dying about ⅔ of the way through. We’re meant to feel an emotional turmoil in Joy when she arrives home to find her grandmother dead, but Rowlands character has done nothing but tells us about how incredible Joy is, how her granddaughter is destined for great things, so we have no character to mourn. Rowlands’ characters is a glorified plot device.
Russell dedicates the film to all the great and powerful women of the world and then fails to give us one example of a strong female relationship throughout the two hours we spend with these people. Joy’s mother is a traumatized recluse who sits in her bedroom watching soap operas all day, her older half-sister is conniving and jealous, her grandmother is a blank canvas, and her childhood best friend is only there to prop up Joy. We learn little to nothing about these other women’s lives or conflicts. The film wants to have a fleshed out crowded cast of characters but then does little work to justify them as real breathing humans.
David O. Russell presents the film as an ode to great women but presents us with a picture that feels pandering and dishonest. The themes are spelled out in expository dialogue that is grossly blunt and annoying. So much in the film is said rather than shown to the extent that characters will say things like “Joy, you are a strong woman who will accomplish so much, and I am proud of you.” After thinking about the movie for a day, I believe Russell was trying to make something akin to George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp or Tony Richardson’s The Hotel New Hampshire, a quirky family picture centered around one central figure. If this was the case, Russell ultimately failed and after a prolific period of filmmaking in the mid-2010s has yet to release anything since Joy.