Loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, David O. Russell’s Joy is a bit of a mess on the surface. It has such great ideas centered around a riveting main character, yet getting there is a bit sloppy. While the performances are riveting like always – we’d expect no less from Russell – the plot suffers from an over reliance on exposition. The result is a mixed bag of underdeveloped and overdeveloped emotions, but it’s nothing the Miracle Mop can’t clean up.
The structure of the film is as unorthodoxly ‘biopic’ as they come. While the film is technically based on the life of a real woman, the film is dedicated to the ‘true stories of daring women,’ Joy herself is an amalgamation of the creative spirit women like her possess. She’s a thinker, a dreamer, and the film makes that known to us since the beginning. The exposition and narration from Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) helps ease us into her world and introduces us to her unpredictable family. But this is a misstep from Russell, breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. It works in some ways, as Joy and Mimi are the only normal members of the clan, adding a unique perspective to the mix, but at other time it’s an overbearing device that doesn’t treat its audience like adults.
The beginning of Joy gets us acquainted with Joy and her family, including her two children, father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), and sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm). They’re an interesting bunch, Russell is no stranger to these kinds of family dynamics, and the characters work well as foils for Joy. Joy’s a doer, always thinking and making things with her hands, but her dreams have been sidelined by her family. Her father Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy, the effervescent Isabella Rossellini, helps Joy get her invention off the ground, and from here the film begins to gain traction.
Joy isn’t known as the “Miracle Mop” movie, as it’s neither a biopic nor a prestige drama. Joy’s invention is groundbreaking, to be sure, but the film isn’t interested in exploring angles related to product development or business strategy. It’s Joy’s film at its core – the supporting characters are mostly background noise – and the film gets most of its emotional mileage from the decisions she makes towards making her dream a reality at her personal and professional expense.
The film’s highlights take place at QVC, when Joy takes her product to executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) and pitches it to the station. It’s here where the film really delivers, both thematically and creatively. The beautifully shot scenes of Joy presenting at QVC put Lawrence to the test, as she must lay it all on the line in such a vulnerable situation. She goes through an array of emotions so complex in this short time that it cements the Lawrence-Russell partnerships as one of the best in the business. The colors of the studio are contrasted with the brights of the kitchen set itself, and it sings.
From here until the finale, Joy settles back into its not-so-interesting role of a murky story about a woman of ideas. Most of the conflict revolves around problems with her manufacturer in Texas, another patent owner of a similar mop, and her family who keeps bailing her out of debt. If Joy had taken more risks thematically and relied less on small random bursts of plot development to keep up the pace, we could have been looking at something special. Joy is still a good film, but it could have been a great one. Inspiring performances (one of Lawrence’s best) and well-developed characters keep the film aloft, and Russell’s direction has never been better, but a murky script holds Joy back from being the hot item this Christmas.