Overview: A semi-biographical drama about entrepreneur Joy Mangano’s invention of the Miracle Mop in the early ‘90s. Fox 2000 Pictures; PG-13; 2015; 124 minutes.
Oh, David O. Russell: Jennifer Lawrence stars as our titular character in her third collaboration with Director David O. Russell, who also co-wrote Joy with Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids). Lawrence is too young to play Joy Mangano, a divorced mother of three, which is a problem especially evident when the audience is asked to believe she’s aged 20 years, but she was too young for her roles in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, too. Like those films, the age criticism is the only potential detracting statement anyone could rightfully make about her performance. She is captivating in what is otherwise a disjointed and sloppily constructed film.
Russell has a particular brand of often polarizing storytelling, placing the focus on dysfunctional families, and Joy is certainly no exception. Joy is portrayed as the everywoman—a divorced, single mother whose life is very much dictated by her needy, narcissistic family members: her shut-in, soap opera-addicted mom (Virginia Madsen), her emotionally abusive father (Robert De Niro), and dependent ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who, years after their divorce, is still living in her basement. The former valedictorian gave up college, and presumably a meaningful career, for an ungrateful brood of ever-present relatives. Joy’s only decent relative, her grandmother, is chosen to narrate the story—even after she dies. It’s a flat-out irritating, unnecessary move. That along with the opening scene soap opera narrative are both employed and abandoned seemingly on a whim, as if Russell either couldn’t make up his mind how to tell this story, or worse, couldn’t remember what he’d started. The soap opera framing device served as a reminder that an intriguing concept without proper execution is ultimately a hindrance.
It’s a Miracle…Almost: This is a movie that requires its audience to be invested in a story about a mop. And despite some of its shortcomings, it manages to do just that for much of the film. Jennifer Lawrence is mesmerizing; her first moments on the QVC stage are captivating enough to make the audience forget we’ve all seen the Miracle Mop on shelves, and we know how this one ends. But even when it seems painfully predictable, brutal setbacks and devastating financial moves provide the story with much-needed jolt to pick up the pace, though it’s short-lived. Just as Joy finally hits its stride, the pivotal scene where she confronts the man trying to swindle her out of everything is nothing short of odd. It’s anti-climactic at best and entirely unbelievable at worst. And in keeping with the previous scene, the final scene, a two decade flash forward, takes a sharp left turn. The writing is suddenly cringe-worthy. Lawrence is surely aware, as this is the only time her Joy seems completely disingenuous. Anything Joy could have boasted was lost in the last 20 minutes.
The Thing About Joy: We’re so rarely given a wickedly smart, driven, independent female lead. Even rarer than that is a movie about a woman where she really has no romantic interest, she isn’t defined by her love life, and her worth isn’t tied to her sexual desirability. So on its surface, Joy looks like a score for women in film. However, inconsistent writing and erratic pacing will ultimately be responsible for Joy’s dismal reception, making it just another female-lead film that missed the mark through no fault of its actress(es) or the audience studios so often blame; audiences aren’t dissuaded by the gender of the film’s star but by the overall quality of the movie—a fact studio executives often fail to accept. We have phenomenal actresses and audiences eager for female leads. What we get with Joy is a wholly missed opportunity.
All in All: Pacing issues and a poor resolution critically injure Joy. But if you can get past some of Russell’s missteps, Jennifer Lawrence is worth the watch in this otherwise unmemorable film.