Joy continues in the semi-comedic tradition of David O’Russell’s recent directorial filmography. Your enjoyment of this film may very well depend on how you feel about O’Russell’s divisive style. The majority of his stylistic flourishes are in full form from the flashbacks to the sometimes disorienting intercuts within scenes. Even though it stumbles slightly out of the gate, it gradually picks up momentum. Once the titular character gets into business for herself, the movie never looks back. With a commanding performance by Jennifer Lawrence at the helm, Joy is a fascinating examination on never losing sight of the American Dream.
Much like Steve Jobs, Joy is a fictionalized and unconventional biopic. The movie centers on Joy Mangano (Lawrence), the inventor of a self-wringing mop that eventually became a phenomenon. The inspiration for the mop stems from a scene in which she stares at her bloody hands after attempting to clean up spilled wine. Like many of the characters in O’Russell films, she comes from an eccentric and dysfunctional family. She lives with her two children, grandmother (Diane Ladd), peculiar parents (Virginia Madsen and Robert De Niro) and her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez).
Right away, O’Russell brings his unconventional style to the forefront. The film is narrated throughout by Joy’s grandmother, which gives the movie a fable-like quality. The narration vanishes after a point but I viewed it as almost like the guidance of a fairy godmother. Heck, the sisters of the family might as well be from Cinderella. The chaos within the family works wonders alongside O’Russell’s choices in camerawork and music. I reiterate that O’Russell can be an acquired taste and even for a big fan like me, some of these choices don’t work. The movie occasionally loses focus in the storytelling amidst all of the hyper-kinetic filmmaking. A slightly more reserved approach, a la The Fighter, would have served the straightforward (at least for O’Russell) story better.
Where O’Russell occasionally stumbles in his storytelling he makes up for with his skill at directing his actors. In her third collaboration with O’Russell, Lawrence does some of her best work in her already stellar career. Even though she’s only 25 years old, she was completely believable as a mother of two. She has incredible range and an ability to internalize whatever she is feeling without seeming cut off or conceited. Her best scenes are when she’s interacting with the QVC executive helping her sell her mop (Bradley Cooper). The scenes between the two perfectly balance the two sides of commercialism: humanity and salesmanship. Not only that, it makes Joy all the more compelling as the central character.
One of the pitfalls of making a biopic is how the eventual downfall from enormous success is depicted. Sadly, O’Russell doesn’t quite stick the landing in the last quarter of the film. The fall of the Mangano Empire is about as conventional and cliché ridden as it gets. It’s also devoid of any sort of bite or satirical undertones regarding the dangers of quick success. Luckily, the performances help to provide investment in the absence of surprise. Speaking of surprise, it’s great to see that Robert De Niro has found himself again. His work in O’Russell’s films has brought some prestige back to his career after a decade or so slump.
Despite the flaws, Joy managed to be a cut above my expectations. The trailers did not do much for me in the way of excitement but my tampered expectations helped me enjoy the movie that much more. I found myself laughing much more than I anticipated. The family dynamics mirror real life with their comedic touches and emotional ties. Joy’s mother absorbs over-the-top soap operas like one of her daughter’s mops. It is touches like these that make me appreciate O’Russell as one of today’s premiere filmmakers. He applies his own unique vision while still managing to tell his stories in the language of film.