When you enter a movie theater to see a film from David O. Russell, expectations are automatically high. After all, he’s given us The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle over the past five years. Three films nominated for Best Picture Oscars, three nominations for Best Director for Mr. Russell. His latest effort, Joy, lives up to those expectations. On some levels. Sadly, on most levels, it does not.
Joy begins with a label claiming it was “Inspired by the true stories of amazing women. One in particular.” While it is clear from the outset that this dedication refers to Joy Mangano. Portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, her story of starting with nothing and becoming the holder of over 100 patents is amazing. But how much of this is her real story and how much did Mr. Russell create on his laptop? Bear in mind that during the film’s 124 minutes, the last name of the title character is not to be heard or seen.
At the outset we are introduced to the very complicated life of Joy, who lives in a house with her mother “Terry” (Virginia Madsen), her maternal grandmother “Mimi” (Diane Ladd) and her two children “Christie” and “Tommy” (portrayed by different young actors at various ages). The husband she divorced two years earier “Tony” (Edgar Ramirez) lives in the basement. As if things were not complicated enough, her father “Rudy” (Robert De Niro) is dropped off at her doorstep by his now ex-girlfriend and will be moving in. Not long afterward, using a dating service, “Rudy” meets “Trudy” (Isabella Rossellini) and will play an important role in Joy’s journey.
We see a flashback to Joy’s youth when she was a “maker of things” and as narrated by her grandmother, told the story of how she was meant to bring fortune to the family. Then, inspired by an interesting accident, she comes up with the concept of a self-wringing mop. It isn’t easy, but she ultimately finds a way to manufacture it and winds up in the office of “Neal Walker” (Bradley Cooper). Turns out he is the man in charge of choosing products for the QVC network. While things don’t go swimmingly at first, Joy’s mop is a success, which leads to a new set of challenges.
The journey of Joy is somewhat stilted and this is what doesn’t work well in the film. The result is uneven pacing and an ebb and flow of tension that is a bit too wide. What does work is the acting of Jennifer Lawrence. The lens of the camera loves this woman and she returns the affection full force. Given the highs and lows of that stilted journey, it affords her the opportunity to explore and display a wide range of feelings and emotions. Bradley Cooper’s role, a probable composite of several QVC executives is limited, but he excels equally in each of his few moments on screen. We’ve seen plenty of interaction between those two and their work opposite Robert De Niro and that also works here. What also works is the background soap opera that Joy’s mother is seriously addicted to. It uses real soap stars and they shine. However, when all is said and done, there are more moments that disappoint rather than those that are wonderful.