Sunday, May 8, 2016
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Isabella Crovetti-Cramp
Running Time: 124 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
In David O. Russell's Joy, Jennifer Lawrence proves she can even make a mop interesting. The opening title card informs us this "Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular." That one woman in particular is Joy Magnano, a divorced mother of three who went from near- poverty to selling her invention of the Miracle Mop and becoming the queen of home shopping television. Knowing of her products but very little about the person behind them, I accidentally stumbled upon one of her shows on the Home Shopping Network right before the release of the film, the timing of which couldn't have been coincidental. "Wait, she's playing HER?" No way could I picture it. Even if she'd be playing Joy at a much younger age, the nature of the role still suggested the casting of an older actress, a complaint Lawrence must be sick of hearing by now. Plus, there's that pesky problem of convincing audiences to show up to a movie about a woman selling mops.
Upon its release, Joy opened with a thud, equally alienating moviegoers and critics, with the latter giving Russell some of his worst reviews since his creative reemergence a few years back. But what's so funny about this is how no one really came out and said exactly what was wrong with it, throwing around generalizations like "crazy" and "unfocused" and even going so far as to express disappointment that film dared to be more than its trailers insinuated. What's actually most perplexing about Joy is that it couldn't be any more straightforward.
This isn't a mess. There isn't a problem with tone. And whatever fudging was done with the facts or pre-production hiccups that occurred, it's very clearly Joy Magnano's story, as listed in the credits. But more than that, it's told brilliantly, furthering cementing Russell's genius and bolstering his reputation as one of the most visually innovative directors working today. Combing elements of comedy, drama and thriller into the biopic that really isn't, its biggest attribute is how unflinching it is in showing the painful sacrifices and obstacles that accompany invention. Few films covering this topic have been stronger or more illuminating.
It's 1989 and Joy (Lawrence) is a single mother of two living on Long Island with her young kids, divorced parents Rudy (Robert DeNiro) and Terri (Virginia Madsen), grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramirez). Between working the desk at Eastern Airlines, breaking up her parents' fights and balancing her father's books at the auto shop, Joy's barely scraping by financially, putting her dreams on hold to take care of her dysfunctional family. Frequently flashing back to happier times, she recalls a childhood full of building and creating things, a hobby that fell to the wayside when her parents divorced 17 years ago. Now her dad's dating a wealthy Italian widow named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and her mom lies on the coach all day, obsessively watching soap operas.
For Joy, inspiration comes in the form of a blueprint for a self-wringing mop she hopes to patent and sell. Supported by her lifelong best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) but discouraged by just about everyone else in her family, including her overachieving half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), she attempts to secure the financing necessary to manufacture and sell the product. And that's where the trouble starts, as a series of severe mistakes and complications lead her to literally risk everything for the pursuit of her dream.
Joy takes care of the household since all the other adults in her life behave like grown children, but the second she needs one favor, they seem to rub her nose in it, at times almost willing things to go wrong. And do they ever go wrong. What the film does really well is show how frustrating it is to be an intelligent person surrounded by irritating know-it-alls. And when those know-it-alls are your family, it gets even uglier. Coming up with the idea is the easy part compared to what follows, as her struggles demonstrate that you could have the most creative, original idea on the planet and it's likely no one can notice or care unless you're willing to fight for it.
A good eighty to ninety percent of the story is about financial disaster, which is kind of fascinating when you consider how many people are out there are pitching their ideas, but just don't have the resources at their disposal to make it happen. The script also harkens back to this interesting notion that sometimes the clearest, purest vision of what you want to do comes in childhood, and your adult life can be spent drifting away from it, hoping you'll return to shore. That's why the flashback scenes featuring a young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) are so essential.
This is really one of the first films to get into the nuts and bolts of patenting an idea, and since Russell keeps things moving and visually engaging, it never seems like a business procedural or tutorial session. Whether it's the hiring of an incompetent lawyer, getting ripped off by the shady manufacturer, or having to take out a second mortgage on her house, she really could lose everything. And the involvement of her family in this enterprise only seems to increase those chances, as they're all more woefully ill-equipped at making these decisions than she is.
The worst of the bunch is Trudy, who Rossellini plays with this unlikable iciness, embodying a woman who feels her unearned wealth entitles her to an alarming degree of control. It is her money Joy's playing with, but all bets are off once she arrogantly holds it over her and pretends to be an expert in something she knows nothing about. DeNiro's Rudy seems to be almost a comic figure at first, before the actor peels back the layers to reveal that Joy shouldn't have stood a chance in life with him as a father. As much as Joy's ex-husband, the failed singer Tony, is presented as a loser with few prospects, he's ironically the only person that has her back and best interests in mind, often sensing disaster before anyone else who should know better.
The high-water mark comes about midway through when Joy finds herself at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania headquarters of then-fledgling home shopping channel, QVC and Russell takes us into a universe we've never seen before. For her, it may as well be another universe entirely. Everything that transpires in this entire section is enthralling, from how Russell shoots it to some of the backstage details and characters we're exposed to (including an out-of-left-field cameo by Melissa Rivers playing her mom). But what's most memorable is Bradley Cooper's brief but pivotal appearance as network executive Neil Walker. Tasked with explaining the company's purpose and taking her on a tour of the facilities, Cooper rattles an almost endless amount of dialogue and expository information about the inner workings of QVC without ever failing to completely hold our interest.
It's almost scary how effective Cooper is here, finding just the right note for this guy, who's no-nonsense and bottom line oriented while still being relatively sympathetic to Joy's situation. He doesn't get a ton of screen time, but his scenes are some of the most crucial of the film, and he plays them just right, with Cooper continuing to prove how interesting a performer he's become. Of course, this eventually culminates in Joy herself having to pitch her product on-air and under lights, with no TV experience under her belt. A first for the network that relies on experienced sellers and celebrities to handle the on-air pitching duties.
The moments of uplift in Joy are few and far between. In fact, you could really only name two. A seemingly certain victory that ends up being short-lived and a final confrontation in a hotel room that's so tense and tightly written it could easily be found in a psychological thriller. This should be admired on a number of levels, not the least of which being Lawrence's Oscar- nominated performance, as she somehow pulls it off again, amazing us in a role she should be completely wrong for.
If it seems as if the Jennifer is playing older than she ever has, it could be attributed to the fact that this character had to take on a huge amount of responsibility at a young age. As it turns out, Joy Mangano was actually in her mid-thirties at the time so Lawrence really is playing ten years older than she is. And once again, when the cameras roll, a transformation takes place in her we'd never think to question. It's a gift she has for playing these strong, but ultimately damaged women and the performance shies away from the ugliness of some of the character's questionable choices. But when push comes to shove, like Joy, she's capable of bringing it when necessary. It also speaks volumes that there's no love interest, making it clear exactly where this story's focus lies.
Reuniting with Russell earned her Lawrence a third Oscar nomination (following her 2013 win for Silver Linings Playbook) so it's impossible to argue she even needs to take things in a different direction, regardless of this film's reception. And while it can be a questionable habit for directors to continuously work with the same cast for multiple projects, there's no need to fix what isn't broken since he's also gotten such wildly different work out of Cooper and DeNiro in each of them, with the former at the top of his game in this.
It's ironic that those calling for a return to the more risk-taking Russell of his earlier days are complaining the style he employs here is too far out there and crazy. Other than the aforementioned flashback scenes, a soap opera framing device and a voice-over narration from beyond the grave (all of which work), this could be considered a straightforward biopic. Or at least it would be in the hands of anyone else.
Russell knows how to infuse a simple story with this manic energy and turn it into so much more than what it appears to be at its surface, a quality never more apparent than in the final minutes, when he transitions from the most hurtful, devastating scene into a succeeding one of pure triumph. We should have known better. If someone can make a compelling movie about the founding of a web site, there was no reason to believe it couldn't also be done for the invention of a mop. Like any story, you just need the right director and cast to make it.