Director: David O Russell
Major Players: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro
Out Of Five: 3.5
The reunion of that apparently foolproof trinity – Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and David O Russell – was bound to make headlines, so the media attention surrounding Joy came as no surprise. Beneath the headlines, it sounded like a bio-pic, this time about Joy Mangano, the struggling mother of three who invented the Miracle Mop and became a highly successful businesswoman. The proverbial American dream, about how anybody can make it if they work hard enough.
And that would have been one way of tackling the story, but not for Russell. He’s taken a more oblique tack, one that’s engaging for its ballsy attitude, even if it doesn’t always come off. So we get a mix of black comedy and family drama going head to head with a big business story. And if you didn’t know that it was based on a real life story, you’d never, ever guess.
From her earliest days, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) was always told by her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) that she was special. As a child, she has a knack for useful, practical inventions but fast forward 20 years and she’s going nowhere. A divorced mother with her ex-husband living in the basement and her mother (Virginia Madsen) a permanent fixture in one of the bedrooms. Her parents are acrimoniously divorced as well and Joy is the only person keeping the family going. Inspired by an accident to create a new type of mop, she struggles to get funding but it eventually comes from her father’s (Robert De Niro) girlfriend and, after several false starts, it sells like hot cakes on QVC. From there, she learns about business the hard way and is nearly bankrupted by the manufacturer of the parts for the mop but, once she takes control and does things her way, the only way is up.
So this is no idealised, inspirational story of a woman with a dream who follows it against the odds. Her family, for example, is a nightmare and is the focus of the first third of the film. Her mother hardly ever moves from the bed in the spare bedroom, glued to a Dynasty-style soap, complete with massive shoulder pads, about an equally nightmarish family but with a lot more money. An indicator of how things are likely to turn out for Joy. But, just when the story seems to be going nowhere, Russell moves the goalposts and does something different. He takes us inside Joy’s childhood memories, sparking off each one with something small, in exactly the same way as it happens in reality. And, while this almost stream of consciousness approach might sound strange, it makes complete sense. It also gives us some much-needed background – particularly Joy’s warring parents, so hell-bent on hurting each other that they destroy the little girl’s paper models and creations. And break her heart.
It is, however, the centre section of the film that holds together best, when Joy manages to get a toehold in shopping television, despite a disastrous start. It may have something to do with this being the part of the film where Lawrence and Cooper, who plays the executive at QVC who believes in her, come together. Their on-screen chemistry is in no doubt. But it’s also the part of the film with a real narrative drive and a sense of direction. The third part, where Joy gets her business baptism of fire and eventually becomes an entrepreneur in her own right, falls somewhere in between. That sense of direction has faded again, but it matters less this time round because we can all guess how things are going to work out.
One of the pleasures of the film is seeing De Niro in a proper role allowing him to show what he really can do. As Joy’s father, he’s a world away from some of the other work he’s done of late and it’s a powerful reminder of his talent, something that younger cinema goers may have wondered about over recent years. The other reason for watching the film – what keeps us watching, in fact – is Jennifer Lawrence herself. For somebody who’s not long turned 25, she displays a remarkable maturity in a role where she has to move almost imperceptibly from somebody of her own age to a woman in her mid-30s and 40s. It rather reflects what she’s been doing generally in her career. We last saw her as teen hero Katniss Everdeen. Now here she is in a story that’s very much for the adults among us.
Joy, the person and the film, isn’t necessarily full of the eponymous spirit – even though some scenes are set at Christmas. Its humour is of the dark, if not bleak, variety and you don’t get that warm, uplifting feeling when Joy gets the success she’s fought so hard to win. It’s been a hard slog, especially with that dreadful family who are still there throughout, always supported by her. But there is satisfaction in her achievements and you come out feeling that you’ve watched something flawed but which has had the courage to do things differently. A bit like Joy herself.
Joy is released on New Year’s Day, Friday, 1 January and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on New Year’s Eve, Thursday, 31 December.