I completely understand why some people don’t care for David O. Russell’s Joy (though I don’t quite get some of the vitriol), but the truth is I liked it — and for many of the same reasons they don’t. I can go back over the film in my mind and see where this could have been tweaked or that could have been trimmed, and the results might well have been a sharper, maybe funnier movie. But it would have also been a more ordinary one — and I don’t think the trade would be worth it. The slightly haphazard, definitely messy, markedly shambling film that Russell has given us has a personality of its own. It is that rarest of things — an inherently quirky film about an inherently quirky subject. It’s a Cinderella story, minus the romance. It’s the American Dream in modern terms — savvy, but not quite cynical.
Joy stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano (though her last name is oddly never mentioned in the film, despite the fact Ms. Mangano was an executive producer), the woman who invented the Miracle Mop and made a fortune selling it over the QVC network. I realize that sounds like the least interesting story imaginable. I groaned when I first heard it. What I didn’t realize (couldn’t have realized) is that Russell could somehow turn it into this beguiling — often wonderful — whimsical fable that thrives on its own artifice. Look at the poster for the film with snow pouring down on Joy. It’s a lovely moment, a charming image. But when you see the scene in the actual film, it’s something else again. It’s a kind of dream image — utterly unreal, the fabrication of a store display — but perfectly suited to the dreams that set Joy apart from other people. Why? Because she embraces the dream image and appreciates faux-reality and cleverness of the idea. That probably sounds like a giant dose of artificial sweetener, but it doesn’t play that way at all. The film is itself too clever, too playful and too wayward for that.
The movie opens with Cream’s “I Feel Free” on the soundtrack and ends with a cover version of the same song. Whether this refers to what Joy wants and achieves, or if it refers to the free spirit of the film itself, I don’t know — for all I know, Russell just likes the song — but it works to bookend the film. It’s a perfect choice, since so much of what Joy wants is freedom. When we meet her, she lives with her addled mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), who spends her entire life in bed watching soaps on TV (soaps Russell made for the film). Her ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), lives in her basement until his singing career (a step up from Karaoke) “takes off.” Her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro) — for whom she also works — will soon move in when his latest girlfriend dumps him. It all eats at her — to a point where her mother’s soaps start invading her dreams. No wonder she wants to feel free. That’s where the idea to invent something comes up, to pick up on her childhood knack for such things — a knack that has been buried for 17 years (like the cicada in a book her daughter’s been given). This will ultimately lead to the Miracle Mop.
Here the film takes a sharp turn into the story of the mop’s creation, its funding, her inability to market it — and her ultimate hook-up with QVC, her success as an onscreen salesperson etc. It’s not as easy as it sounds and it’s not the end of the story by a long shot. For that matter, what I’ve detailed does little to convey the amassed quantity of oddness that runs through the film. Some of it is funny, some endearing and some maddening. You may be wondering where highly-billed Bradley Cooper is in all this. He plays Neil Walker, the person who gets Joy her spot on QVC. It’s a nice, showy supporting role. In a lesser film, he would become Joy’s romantic interest. Here, he merely becomes her friend. It may disappoint the rom-com crowd, but it’s refreshing.
This is not a perfect film. It goes on longer than it needs to. The device of having Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) narrate the film sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. (Oddly, I think it works better when she narrates from beyond the grave.) But when it comes right down to it, I don’t think I’d change a thing. It’s the offhand, shambling, messy, sketchy quality that makes Joy such a special little movie. It’s a movie I think time will treat kindly. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.