'Joy' Finds a Silver Lining

(USA, 124 min.)
Dir. David O. Russell, Writ. David O. Russell. Annie Mumolo
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm
Jennifer Lawrence stars in Joy.
20th Century Fox

Joy reminds me of another movie. Not a David O. Russell movie, though. (At times, it seems like a parody of one.) Rather, Joy calls to mind an oft-maligned movie of 2005 that’s actually a lot better than people say. That film is Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. Elizabethtown, like Joy, is a film that one shouldn’t necessarily begrudge another moviegoer for disliking: it’s rocky, wildly uneven, and the first thirty minutes are terrible enough to inspire a walkout. But if one survives Elizabethtown’s atrocious opening number, one finds that the film’s actually decently watchable. Ditto Joy, which grates on the nerves with a get-me-the-hell-outta-here first act, but then settles down for a watch that’s pleasant and rewarding enough to merit a recommendation tied with a warning.

There’s a compliment in there somewhere, but Joy marks a disappointing dip for director David O. Russell following a string of hits with American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Fighter. Even a fan of Russell’s OCD direction and manic humour might find the craziness of Joy’s first half hour to be unbearable. The film, which credits a whopping quartet of editors, is a mass of tonal shifts, starts, stutters, and stop. Tangential flashbacks, dream sequences, and a sweet little musical number appear alongside as many abrupt changes in the soundtrack. Joy is loud and shrill as it changes gears while introducing Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) and her off-the-wall family, which includes her sweet grandma (Diane Ladd, who narrates the film), her live-in ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), her womanizing father Rudy (Robert De Niro), and her soap opera loving shut-in of a mother Terry (Virginia Madsen).

Terry spends her days watching a soap opera, which offers an opening gag that returns throughout the film in a fun bit of self-reflexivity. The show stars daytime divas Susan Lucci and Laura Wright in an inspired stroke about the lunacy of soap opera drama and the farce of Joy’s own family. The soap opera thread is, however, Joy’s biggest gaffe since the film takes the viewer in and out of the show that Terry watches on her TV as the show-within-the-show frames and comments upon Joy’s story—sort of, anyways, until Joy abandons this enjoyable piece of the puzzle partway through the film.

Most films endear themselves to viewers while being a little crazy (see: Silver Linings Playbook) but Joy is schizophrenic and hard to follow as it jumps around with a potpourri of wild ideas. As is the case in a Russell picture, the camera moves constantly as the characters shout, yell, and TALK AS LOUD AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE, but the mania doesn’t work as well as it does in his previous works. The energy proves disorienting and suffocating. After spending the holidays with one’s own family, the loons in the Mangano household are too much. In fairness to Russell, though, his style of constant motion and heightened emotion jives with Joy once it gets a handled on itself—much like Joy herself.

Joy calms down eventually once Joy sets forth on inventing the Miracle Mop that makes her famous. Once she’s in entrepreneurial mode—and once Joy lets Lawrence take the helm of the film—Joy settles down for a fun and spunky film experience. Lawrence gives one of her best performances yet as the feisty Joy. She carries both the sparkle of youth and the doggedness of a woman who’s supported a family for years while getting nothing in return. Lawrence puts so much hunger into her character that she feeds herself with the chaos of Joy’s story and balances the film. She works perfectly in step with the black comedy of the screenplay and the unrestrained sprightliness of Russell’s direction, proving that she and Russell really are one of the best actor-director combos of their generation even if Joy is the lesser of their films.

Lawrence headlines a great cast and once again has great chemistry with fellow Russell regulars De Niro and Cooper, while Madsen and Ladd add to the film in underwritten roles. A small turn by Melissa Rivers as her mother Joan is an unexpected delight, while Isabella Rossellini nearly steals the film in her hilariously zany performance as Rudy’s girlfriend Trudy. Rossellini, like Lawrence, finds a firm handle on both the madcap energy and underlying darkness for which Joy aims.

Maybe it’s for the best that credit for saving Joy and her wacky tale goes to the women of the film. The film’s opening title cards proclaim Joy to be one story among many about women who changed the game, and Lawrence, Rossellini, and Ladd play a range of women with differing views on family and opportunity in America. As the grandmother, Ladd is the film’s heart as her character constantly inspires Joy to reach for a better life. As the Italian-born Trudy, drolly living under the ghost of her late husband Morris, Rossellini creates an inspired meeting point for a mobster and a matriarch as Trudy bankrolls an operation that the men in Joy’s life can’t afford. As Joy, finally, Lawrence’s go-for-broke performance conveys how much harder a woman has to work to get ahead. The restlessness of this performance really brings Joy to life as Lawrence throws herself into the character and gives the audience a sense of the fight it takes for a woman to break through the ceiling into Big Business in America. Joy might be a slog, but it comes with a silver lining.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Joy is now playing in wide release.