We have come to expect certain things from David O. Russell pictures. A tightly wound story about complex characters tackling complex issues, music from a bygone era, and the acting duo of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In American Hustle, Russell told a story about corruption and did it a way that we became emotionally invested in its storyline and its characters who occupy the center of it all. In Joy, Russell asks us to listen to story about a mop, for two hours. It’s not that we don’t care about Joy or her mop, it is a fascinating story, but the execution is really less than fascinating. Joy rarely exhibits the emotion that its title suggests. It is part dysfunctional family story, part rags to riches and part character study, but it never seems to fully catch on to any of those areas. They make up the ingredients of a film that could’ve been great but only leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. Despite a committed performance from Jennifer Lawrence, Joy is overlong, unsatisfying and moreover, not Russell’s best work.
Joy stars Lawrence, Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen and Diane Ladd. The film tells the story of Joy Mangano the creator of the miracle mop. Joy goes through many ups and downs in her life in a desperate effort to become more than just a housewife living an ordinary life. Joy becomes inspired to make a self ringing mop and risks everything to become successful. But when corporate greed and manipulation threaten to bring Joy and her product down, she is forced to make tough decisions that could ultimately cost her everything. It is a story of revenge, family dynamics and the desire to achieve the american dream. Joy is a true rags to riches story with none of the glam that you know from this genre of film.
Russell and his script co-writer Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids) craft interesting characters. Most of them aren’t given much to do. In fact, most are given unmemorable and forced dialogue. Granted, there are some really great performances in this film particularly from Jennifer Lawrence and a terrific yet subtle performance from Diane Ladd. This is a film you see for the performances. But these characters aren’t fully developed and we are left with the hunger for more. Bradley Cooper turns in another terrific turn as well as the calming presence who seems to be the only one who believes in Joy. We know Cooper and Lawrence are great together on screen. Since Silver Linings Playbook, they have popped up in many films together including Russell’s previous effort which earned them both Oscar nods. But, there is nothing new about their dynamic in this film. We’ve seen it before. Russell like many directors likes his familiar casts (DeNiro included), but when is it time to move one from them and show us something new from some fresh faces. Russell is a competent enough director to do this.
The characters themselves are new, and their chemistry is terrific for the most part. But that still doesn’t change the notion that we are yearning for more background on some of these characters. Especially the namesake of the film. Joy is constantly trying to break out and do her own thing. She strives to break away from her family and change her future. Yet she is constantly dragged down by her manipulative family. We are left to wonder why Joy allows this. If she is truly trying to break out, why is her father and his new girlfriend almost ensuring her failure? We see Joy fail at the behest of her family, but in the next scene, Joy is back on top of the world. There is nothing to explain this nor why this is the families intention to purposely derail Joy’s plans. There is more to these characters than what Russell is showing us.
Unlike Russell’s previous films like The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook which move seamlessly from scene to scene, Joy is static. The film trudges along at a painfully sluggish pace with nearly no glimmer hope for our heroine. When something good finally happens to Joy, it is almost overwhelming. This film is so dreary and boring I found myself checking my watch at points. It is overlong and by the third act, it is begging you to care about a mop. We want to care about Joy and her struggle. We want to see this woman rise above her adversaries and win, not feel bad because her manufacturer stole her molds. Joy’s grandmother (Ladd) is her rock in a truly dysfunctional family. We see this in some instances in the film. But most of the time grandma is totally ignored. Despite that, Ladd is still able to convey the emotions Russell and Mumolo want her to have, but through no help from their script. Near the end we finally see the film care about its characters more than Joy’s mop. But it comes way to late to save this film from being a by the numbers rags to riches story about a product that everyone thought was stupid. We’ve seen this before.
If not for Lawrence, this film falls flat entirely. The charismatic presence she brings to nearly every role is why we all love her so much. Russell has twice directed her to Oscar nominations now and may have well directed her to a third one. We see ourselves in Joy and genuinely root for her even when it becomes exhausting to do so. Joy attempts to act as a character study for this woman who is willing to risk everything for this product, but unfortunately fails. When Joy’s flaws and genius do become more important than her mop, we see this film flourish and show us that ability Mr. Russell has to make us emotionally invest in his characters. But he is seemingly unsure of where he wants to take this film, and it suffers for it. Joy’s themes are made very clear, and we are often beat over the head with them. In a way, these characters lack of development just makes them the typical characters we see in a story about chasing the American dream who just follow the same beats we already know. The enchantment of the american dream is a terrific story telling device, but we have seen done better in other films.
Is Joy a bad film? I wouldn’t say that. I didn’t hate it. There is a good film in here somewhere maybe even a great one. But, Russell doesn’t dig deep enough into his characters to give this film an opportunity to shine. In the end, it is a interesting story that maybe could’ve made a better documentary. Joy was one of the films I was looking forward to seeing in 2015 and sadly I was disappointed and underwhelmed. David O. Russell is still the one of the best directors working today, but even the best make some clunkers from time to time. You watch this film for the performances, and Lawrence gives a good one but overall Joy is an unfocused mess that not even the miracle mop would be able to clean up.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd
Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 124 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for brief strong language)