David O Russell has assembled his regular crew for another story about broken people and one person’s struggle to do better in life. It is familiar territory for Russell to cover and his third collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, and Bradley Cooper. Without being as instantly charming and well plotted as Silver Linings Playbook, Joy is much stronger than the muddled and overhyped American Hustle.
Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is a single mother who has to take care of her children, crazy parents (divorced), and Grandmother. All the while her ex-husband lives in her basement. Joy works a thankless job and helps at her father’s dying garage, also thankless. Life constantly kicks her while she’s down and any thought she has of her own is dismissed as silly or ignored altogether by her terrible family. When she’s had enough Joy decides to take control. She invents the world’s first self-wringing mop with a detachable head. Her struggle to get this product off the ground is difficult enough with no money in a pre-internet world but the abuse her family casts over her and the jealousy her sister displays almost breaks her spirit.
Joy is a story of one woman’s struggle to overcome her station in life, despite having almost no support in doing so. The movie itself is a character piece, through and through. Jennifer Lawrence is at the top of her craft, and that’s a lofty statement for such a phenomenal actress. You can see the tension, the exhaustion, and the drive in this woman. Her performance is magnetizing. She is the embodiment of the modern American Dream and deals with frustrations every audience member has experienced at one time or another, hopefully not on the same scale.
Robert DeNiro and Virginia Madsen, Joy’s on screen parents, aren’t just in the movie to show how terrible her family life is. It shows what she is really up against. It’s two extremes of how Joy’s life can, and likely will, turn out if she doesn’t start doing some serious course correction. Her mother is beaten down by life. Shut in and has replaced human interaction with a campy soap opera. DeNiro is running a failing business in an industry that has no reason to fail other than mismanagement. His incompetence is shown clearly as he just falls from one problem to the next without doing anything about it. To further the importance of these characters they are the complete opposite to the man who becomes so important in Joy’s life with no romance between them at all.
Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Neil Walker, a fictional character that embodies some very real world ideas and successes, is written as the polar opposite to Joy’s parents. Neil is smooth talking, quiet, logical, driven, and concise. He knows who he is, where he is, why he’s there, and where he’s going next.
Russell has shows his skill as a director again after apparently taking some time off from caring in 2013. The movie is a showcase of a class in America more than the early 90s. Nothing about how the Mangano family lives is a parody, no comedy comes from the plight of people. The subject matter and the outlying implications are all handled well. The editing is top notch and the soundtrack is subtle. The chosen score punctuates the mood, themes, and setting.
While some of the characters get a little murky and the inclusion of others seems altogether unnecessary the cast is strong and fills in some gaps where the script is weak. Not all the comedy hits and the book-ended narration is unnecessary; verging on campy. While Joy is celebrating one woman’s success, one woman’s ability to rise above upbringing, social standing, class, family, and defeat at every turn the film ultimately doesn’t give her enough credit. Sounds ridiculous but the end wraps up with only a glimpse at the woman Joy Mangano really becomes.
Expertly directed and acted, a little more polish in the script could have brought Joy from good to great.