Joy is an inventive young woman with her dreams on hold, a real George Bailey with no angel coming to her rescue. She’s single-handedly holding her family together at the expense of her own ambitions. She wants to make useful things, objects that’ll be admired and owned by everyone, but in reality she’s stuck in a dead-end minimum wage job, having skipped college to help her parents. They’re all just barely getting by. But, when inspiration strikes, she scrapes together her courage and resources to build a prototype of a self-wringing mop. (It’s also machine washable, a nice feature.) This Miracle Mop could be her ticket to success. A capitalist parable as feminist empowerment, David O. Russell’s Joy, loosely based on the real mop’s inventor, is the sort of story we’re used to seeing men enact. Take Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, or countless other canonical classics of business acumen and its costs. But here the narrative is a woman’s, a perspective that’s long existed in this area, but gone woefully underrepresented in movies like this.
We meet Joy through the eyes of her grandmother (Diane Ladd), a kind and encouraging woman who tells her little granddaughter that she’ll do great things with her life. Ladd narrates the film, giving it a slightly unreal glow, like a heartfelt business biography picture book read with grandmotherly warmth. By the time Joy is a young woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence), she’s trying to run a sprawling, eccentric household with meager emotional and financial support. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a soap opera addict who stays in bed all day. Her father (Robert De Niro), a small-business owner long divorced from her mom, was kicked out of his latest wife’s place and moved into the family’s basement. That’s also where Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) lives, unable to afford his own house on a mostly-unemployed lounge singer’s income. They have two young kids who are caught up in this harried maelstrom of chaotic family life, including a condescending step-aunt (Elisabeth Rohm) who offers criticisms but little help.
Lawrence’s commanding performance – her best grown-up role yet – is driven with determination. In the opening scenes of family drama she’s harried, rushing around trying to fix everyone else’s problems – from cleaning up spills and planning kids’ days to ripping up floorboards and working on the plumbing – while trying to make ends meet. Once she decides to try to bring her invention to market, she ignites her frazzled energy into swaggering determination, albeit still cut through with self-doubt and ever-present financial and familial pressures. She’s too motivated to quit, gambling on her skills and talents. As a result, she’ll either end up wealthy or bankrupt. There’s not much room for middle ground in this endeavor. The film is an intimate American epic of domestic chambers and boardrooms, factory floors and TV soundstages, as she tries to get her mop manufactured and selling. Failure is definitely an option, and Lawrence brings a great energy, halfway between self-confidence and nagging doubts, as she strides into difficult situations.
The entrepreneur’s dream is not an easy one. She’s just as likely to be ground under by others who don’t share her vision, or who view her as an easy target. Joy’s story may come from the Shark Tank business school, or Horatio Alger stories, but her lean in isn’t uncomplicated. Russell, working from a script by Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids), creates a film keenly aware of the razor’s edge, the stomach-dropping plunges into debt as Joy struggles to get taken seriously, gain recognition, avoid getting taken advantage of, and realize her product’s potential. (That Russell fought Mumolo for writing credit on such a story is a sad irony.) Joy finds her family a doubting chorus, and everyone in the business world trying to be a bigger success, a more glamorous person, thinking they can get there through hard work and delusion. A buyer (Bradley Cooper) sees himself as a studio mogul. A wealthy widow (Isabella Rossellini) thinks her inheritance is a measure of her business savvy. Money is essential, but getting it is not a panacea.
Intermingling paperwork, finances, factories, and salespeople with family squabbles and pains, Russell stages scenes with a variety of moving plot parts and competing characters’ motivations in close-quarters drama played at comedy speed. Russell specializes in ragged and heightened amusing melodramas about squabbling families (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter). Unlike his last film, the pretty, but fundamentally phony American Hustle, he keeps Joy’s comic and dramatic incidents spinning through a variety of tempos and film stocks, making its inconsistency its consistency, animating Joy’s sense of hard-charging ambition and precarious insecurities. Intensely felt with a booming soundtrack of unexpected needle-drops and smooth, emphatic camera movements (director of photography Linus Sandgren dancing amongst the lively cast), the unusually unstructured story (a conventional three-act structure told with a loose rambling quality) pushes forward with relentless momentum. I was invested in its medley of tones and terrifically sympathetic hero from her first frame.
Tidily untidy on the surface – with theatrical flourishes, elaborate visual metaphors, dream sequences, flashbacks, cameos, and even a musical number – Joy takes, well, joy in broad characters and boisterous performances, showy filmmaking and layered writing. I found it gripping and moving, an involving business story smashed up against an affecting family drama, peppered with lovely touches – a warm voice from beyond the grave, an exquisite Christmassy sales call montage, a low-key mother/daughter bond over crayons and blueprints, and a dance of fake snow flurries accompanying a strut towards victory intercut with a melancholy flash-forward. It captures the real and unreal aspects of self-mythology, the inherent falseness of singular up-from-bootstraps triumph, and the odd flukes that lead to both setbacks and success.
Joy emerges as a great character, an exhausted woman always with a stain on her blouse from helping others, who decides to become something more, slowly coming alive and into her own in the spotlight. The movie surrounds her with endlessly entertaining complications, and great actors (each a total delight) wonderfully filling in their characters’ eccentricities and peculiarities. Funny and moving, exciting and sad, it sees the promise and artifice of the American dream, and the fortuitous incongruities (like a shopping network in the middle of Amish country) that can lead to accomplishment. It simultaneously celebrates her hard-working attempt to turn her great idea into a big business, and also realizes money won’t fix her family’s problems.