Hmm, a two-hour drama on the inventor of the Miracle Mop. As the minutes pass in David O. Russell’s Joy, we have time to reflect on what we’re watching. What did director Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) have in mind with the tale of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), a lower-middle-class divorcee from suburban Long Island whose search for a reliable source of income leads her to develop a best-selling rope mop?
Joy’s life has all the contours of a TV sitcom. She lives in a small house with her mother (Virginia Madsen), her grandmother (Diane Ladd), and her two kids. The older women spend most of their time glued to soap operas, and hard-working Joy, the one with a job, gets stuck cleaning up the family’s messes (aha, there’s a clue). Joy’s meddling father Rudy (Robert De Niro), who owns an auto body shop, is paired up with Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), an Italian immigrant generally thought to have money — although no one sees much of it. Meanwhile, Joy maintains a close relationship with her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramírez), a failed lounge singer. Joy is surrounded by people with TV dreams but no cash.
Russell might have chosen a broad comic approach to this. In fact, director Preston Sturges made hilarious movies about folks like Joy and her relatives, with loads of humor about what it takes to be successful in America (hint: Success is usually accidental). Russell cannot exactly manage that. He and writer Annie Mumolo based their movie on the real Joy Mangano, who built a merchandising empire using shop-at-home networks aimed at people who watch the tube all day. So there’s plenty of opportunity for sharp, satiric laughs. Instead, Joy wavers between kitchen-sink drama and making easy fun of women with big blonde hair, oversized eyeglasses, and tacky taste in clothes. It’s as if Russell had some Seventies wardrobe left over from American Hustle, so he cooked up this kooky story — but forgot to tell Lawrence it was supposed to be funny. It’s a writing problem working hand-in-hand with a directing problem.
Lawrence’s Joy spends most of the movie looking extremely uncomfortable, but we don’t have much sympathy for her because she’s not especially endearing. She achieves her goal by being just as tough as the businessmen trying to fleece her — again, a character trait someone from Sturges’ screwball comedy era (Barbara Stanwyck?) could have run with, but not Lawrence. As Joy’s talkative dad, De Niro steals what there is to steal of the movie, slim pickings. Halfway through, we’re introduced to cable TV honcho Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) but he’s about as much fun as watching a hedge fund trader. Another hustler selling junk we’re not interested in.
By the time Joy strikes gold we’re so tired of her and the drudgery of her existence that we can’t wait to get up and leave the theater. That is not a good sign for a movie built around a super-duper cleaning product. She finally gets rich but still has the same rascally family. We might tell ourselves it’s inspiring to watch regular folks better themselves with inventions, but we’d be lying.