If anyone deserves to have living sainthood status bestowed upon them, it has to be Joy Mangano, the put-upon heroine and real-life inventor played by Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell’s Joy. Joy was told at a young age that she was special and destined for great things by her doting grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), but every other member of her family unconsciously conspires to keep Joy down. When we catch up to Joy in her adult life, she’s running herself ragged trying to meet the needs of her ramshackle brood, with absolutely no one stepping forward to assist, or even to offer a simple thank-you. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is a shut-in who sits in bed all day, refusing to tear herself away from her soap operas. Her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) is a cantankerous wreck, always on the lookout for a new relationship to replace whichever previous one he’s destroyed. Her half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) makes no attempt to conceal the blatant contempt she carries for Joy. Her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) tanked their marriage by refusing to accept any employment that didn’t further his singing career, yet still lives in Joy’s basement two years post-divorce. Add to the pile a pair of screaming kids, a thankless job at an airport ticket counter, a stack of delinquent bills and an increasingly dilapidated house and Joy’s life renders her first name a cruel joke.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Joy was a bright, creative young girl, and was in fact the valedictorian of her high school’s graduating class. Mimi was right, she was destined for great things, and is an avid inventor of nifty household items. But given that her homestead is bursting at the seams with both actual children and glorified adult ones who, in some cases literally, can barely get out of bed without her direct assistance, she has had to put her life on hold and is beginning to fray from the strain of it all. After sustaining cuts from mopping up wine and glass shards from the deck of the luxury sailboat owned by Rudy’s new, well-to-do, widowed paramour Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and collapsing into a cough-syrup-derived, much-needed deep sleep, Joy awakes with newfound purpose. She furiously begins to design a new-fangled mop, one that consists of a continuously looped coil of cotton, can be self-wrung and with a business end that can be detached for machine-washing. This mop is destined to change the game of housekeeping. Now Joy just needs to build and sell the thing, not realizing the arduous road she will need to walk to realize her vision.
Joy taps into the vein of dysfunctional families and how oppressive and damaging they can be, one of Russell’s pet themes going all the way back to his first two films, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster. The first act of Joy, where we watch our harried protagonist go through the paces of dealing with all these broken, self-serving ingrates is exhausting. The frustration of her situation is palpable in Lawrence’s performance, even though Joy herself scarcely ever complains about her lot in life. She is not merely the only thing holding this family together, she’s the only way any of them even manage to survive, so unwilling are they to lift a finger or face down any of their issues. She enables all of them by being eternally patient and dependable, allowing them to take her for granted. Getting a glimpse of how torturous Joy has allowed her life to become engenders a wealth of sympathy for her.
Once Joy is able to produce a prototype of her mop, she gets a reluctant Trudy to invest in the product, yet is thoroughly unable to market or sell the mop at the consumer level, sinking so low as to stage demonstrations in parking lots for uninterested passersby. However, a surprisingly helpful Tony manages to use a connection to put Joy and her mop in a room with Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), a top executive for the burgeoning QVC network, where she manages to sell the disengaged Walker on her product through sheer determination. From there, Joy takes the form of a thriller in which Joy has to navigate the journey of patenting, funding, manufacturing and selling a product, each leg of which is a tumultuous headache. That the film can inspire such heart-in-the-throat tension from something as inherently tedious as patent law is a real feat.
Lawrence is the reason Joy is as winning as it is. Her resilience in the face of constant adversity affords the character a plucky underdog spirit. One cannot help but pull for her because the prospect of watching her fail and collapse hopelessly into debt would be so unbearably sad. The actress has become Russell’s muse (with Cooper and De Niro as co-muses), and it’s not hard to see why. As with her roles in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Lawrence is a bit too young for the world-weary character she plays, yet is able to summon a gravity well beyond her years that allows her to squeak by in spite of her youthfulness. De Niro also puts in solid work as a loving dad who simply does not realize how corrosive a presence he can be. Cooper does not have as substantial a role, finding himself stuck in benevolent-mentor gear. But Dascha Polanco as Jackie, Joy’s endlessly loyal best friend, probably receives the film’s only real shaft, never seeming as substantial a presence as the movie lazily insists she is.
Unlike the wonder mop, some of Joy does leave streaks. There are perhaps too many problems that Joy solves simply by forcing her way into a room with a powerful opponent and being an unflappable firebrand. And her family members’ quirks occasionally veer a bit on the cartoonish side, a recurring trait in Russell’s work. Then there’s the Mimi character, who is so angelic that she seems to exist solely to materialize whenever Joy needs encouragement. Yet I found the film much more engaging and satisfying than the dance-your-mental-disorders-away baloney of Silver Linings Playbook or the dinner-theater-Scorsese aura of American Hustle. If you ask me, it’s the director’s third union with Lawrence that actually deserves to mop up some acclaim.
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