Directed by David O. Russell
Opens December 25
Joy is not technically a Christmas movie, but it is the fourth David O. Russell film in six years to open during the holiday season. First-album-style Russell fans who still pine for a Flirting with Disaster redux might say that’s because he’s become a mainstream, awards-courting shill (or at least as undisciplined and haphazard as an office holiday party), but really, it makes sense for the exact same reason Flirting still resonates almost twenty years later: because Russell sees the world as an extended, perhaps neverending, family holiday dinner, with all of the love and contentiousness that implies.
This is also why Joy feels familiar yet different; it traffic-jams in the same number of loud, opinionated, often uncouth characters as Russell’s other recent films, even employing some of the same actors: Jennifer Lawrence as the title character, a put-upon single mother with a creative invention streak; Robert De Niro as her meddlesome and floundering businessman of a father; and, later, Bradley Cooper as a QVC executive who Joy encounters in the selling of her amazing Miracle Mop (the real-life inventor of which, Joy Mangano, is a credited producer on this film, though it does not announce itself as a biopic—in fact, what was originally described as such has been backpedaled into a movie “inspired” by Mangano and, per Russell, uh, like, lots of women). The rest of the squabbling family is filled out by Edgar Ramirez (Joy’s ex-husband), Virginia Madsen (Joy’s mother), Elisabeth Rohm (Joy’s unpleasant sister), and Diane Ladd (Joy’s grandmother, more present as the occasional narrator of the movie than a barely-there character). But unlike the overspilling ensembles of American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Fighter, most of the supporting cast in Joy doesn’t particularly get their due.
That may be by design. After serving as the catalyzing love interest and a force of chaos in the last two Russell joints, his muse Jennifer Lawrence is officially front and center for this one. She’s again playing a tad older than her actual age, and again she brings out the latent musical director in Russell, for a scene where she and her then-husband sing together on stage in a local… talent show, I guess? The movie’s background details are sometimes fuzzy. Like his other films, this one lives in the moment; Russell can be restless, hence the movie’s four credited editors (three out of four having worked on previous Russell productions) and, moreover, some cuts that feel like weird paste-ups. Characters shuffle in and out of the narrative, which follows Joy as she claws her way into the mop business, and they don’t always get, what’s the word, characterized. De Niro and his onscreen partner Isabella Rossellinni make an impression, but as a whole Joy’s family holds her back and undermines her in a way that makes the story seem almost Randian in its single-minded championing of Joy’s greatness.
The movie, then, becomes a tribute to Lawrence’s ample star qualities. Despite Russell’s screwball tendencies, Joy is often closer to the steeliness of Katniss Everdeen than the funnier parts Lawrence played in Silver Linings Playbook and especially American Hustle. If Russell isn’t fully attuned to the dynamics of a star vehicle (just chopping away the other characters doesn’t necessarily work), Lawrence’s face does the rest of the job; there are whole movies in her close-ups. One of the best shots holds on her face as she stands backstage at QVC, the set rotating her into the spotlight.
The QVC section of the film, in which Joy teams up with Bradley Cooper’s Neil, provides a breathless tutorial in the early business and art of home-shopping; it could’ve spun off into its own wacked-out docudrama, easily. Lawrence may have won an Oscar under Russell, but he’s probably even more responsible for the ongoing career of Cooper, who sometimes appears to be a different actor entirely in these films. He’s not as winningly manic as he was in American Hustle but he gains a foothold that some of the other actors struggle for.
As it pushes from soapy melodrama infused with Russell madness to detail-light business procedural to inspirational fake true story, the film takes on a dreamlike quality. It’s heavy on white backgrounds, real and fake snow, and sometimes actual dream sequences, like when Joy imagines herself inside the soap opera that her bedridden mother watches seemingly around the clock. It allows scenes and details (like the fact that De Niro’s garage business has a side hustle in its ramshackle gun range out back) to linger while plot points blur into the background. Joy isn’t Russell’s best movie; Three Kings is a better straightforward story, and American Hustle reps a better application of his signatures and skill set. But the self-mythologizing that might have gone on in a genuine Mangano biopic (and, with her as a producer, may still be going on, uncredited) feels more generous than it should. Joy’s family is an undermining pain, but the movie isn’t about her pitching them overboard. Her idea is brilliant, but she wants to help others realize their own oddball inventions. And her story plays, in the end, like a matriarchy origin story.