Underwhelming and Conventional, ‘Joy’ Lacks the Innovation of Its Inspiration

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I can’t escape this sneaking suspicion that something happened to David O. Russell. Once the indie auteur behind such ambitious and daring films as I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings, Russell seemed to go through a massive transition following the collapse of his film Nailed (a butchered version of the abandoned film was released this year under the title Accidental Love). Following the disastrous production of Nailed, Russell started this current era of his filmography, an era that his earned him a number of Academy Award nominations along with critical and commercial success, but his later work has become increasingly conventional and mediocre. In the early goings of Russell’s latest film, Joy, there are moments that feel like the once-challenging filmmaker is channeling his past audacity, but it doesn’t take long for the film to wind down into the same rut that has dominated his film like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Joy tells the true story of Joy Mangano, a single mother-turned-inventor who built an empire from selling her products on QVC and other home shopping channels. Jennifer Lawrence once again stars in Russell’s film, the vibrant young actress has taken the role of muse for the director of late. In the film’s portrayal, Joy is divorced yet still living with her ex-husband Tony Miranne (Édgar Ramírez), a failed nightclub singer, and their two children. Joy struggles to keep the house together while working her thankless job as a booking agent for an airline. Living with her and Tony are Joy’s mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) and her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd). Terry is voluntarily bed-ridden following her divorce to Joy’s father Rudy (Robert De Niro) and spends her days heavily invested in soap operas. Things get a bit more hectic around the house when Rudy is forced to move in with Joy and the rest of the expansive family, though everyone is struggling to survive with bills due and the house in disrepair.

Joy’s life begins to change shortly after her father begins dating Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a widow who inherited her late husband’s fortune. Joy comes up with the idea for a self-wringing mop, and begins crafting these items in her father’s shop with a loan from Trudy. Though she has trouble getting them to sell at first, Joy’s luck changes when she strikes a deal with Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who places her mop to sell on the growing home shopping channel QVC. Despite her success, Joy has to contend with a number of obstacles, both professional and personal, before she’s able to build an empire of household goods.

From the very start of the film it’s obvious that David O. Russell is having trouble finding the right tone for this story. In moments, it’s playing for a manic comedy with a number of eccentric members of Joy’s family bickering and yelling. These moments are aided by dream sequences where Joy finds herself in the soap opera world that consumes her mother. However, the dream sequences are the fleeting moments of imagination that Russell brings to the film, and they quickly fade as the film crosses the half-hour mark. After that, it’s simply a drama where Joy has to overcome varied obstacles to get her business off the ground. But these moments fail to effectively work because the low points are quickly skirted in the very next scene. Tension between Joy and her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) are woefully undercooked considering how much importance the film places on their combative relationship.

Unlike any other movie of recent memory featuring Jennifer Lawrence, Joy has the phenomenal actress working on unsteady ground. Perhaps it’s the fact that she’s just so young and beautiful that it seems a stretch that she’s playing a stressed out mother of two, but even those elements could be brushed aside had Joy featured a better script. The few moments where Lawrence is allowed to shine are the scenes at QVC, with Bradley Cooper as the enthusiastic ring master of the home shopping channel and Lawrence allowed to shed the burden of the external factors and just become radiant and charismatic.

Russell took over the scripting duties from Annie Mumolo, who also receives a story credit, and one can’t help but wonder what the film would’ve looked like had it retained more of Mumolo’s vision as opposed to Russell. Unlike many other filmmakers over the past 15 years, David O. Russell is able to coax a bit of life out of Robert De Niro, but the acclaimed actor is just given a character that is a slight variation of his Silver Lining Playbook character, a grumpy east coast patriarch. But Russell can’t get much more out the other characters in the story. They’re either too manic or too undercooked to add the appropriate dramatic weight when the story needs it.

Joy is very much a continuation of David O. Russell’s continued march to being the preeminent maker of parent movies. They’re for people who don’t really love the movies but are drawn to one with a few stars and a bit of awards buzz. Like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Joy isn’t David O. Russell at his best, but his most conventional. There are a number of elements to suggest that Joy would be a better movie than it is. Yet David O. Russell sells his muse short and Jennifer Lawrence isn’t able to command the screen as well she has in the past. For a movie about a woman able to take all sorts of pieces and turn them into something new and valuable, Joy lacks that sense of innovation and adaptation.

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