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Film Review: Joy

by Andrew Collins on May 29, 2016

in Andrew Collins, Featured, Film Reviews, Winter-Spring 2016

Happiness-Based Ironic Title
by Andrew Collins

Joy, the latest Jennifer-Lawrence-and-Bradley-Cooper-powered effort by director David O. Russell, takes a long, hard look at the American dream through the experience of a woman named Joy (Lawrence) in the late 80s and early 90s. The daughter of a twice-divorced small-business owner (Robert De Niro) and inept, soap-opera obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen), Joy attempts to climb to the top of the family matriarchy on the backs of 20th-century American housewives by inventing the Miracle Mop – the best mop on the market.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is no romantic portrayal of entrepreneurism. It takes more than a good idea, more than a lucky break, and more than a whole lot of elbow grease for Joy to bring her idea to fruition. The stars don’t align for Joy, she has to reach into the sky and straighten them out herself, and even when she does they don’t stay straight for long.

Aside from Lawrence’s display of acting prowess, the picture isn’t very pretty, but it still shows something of the good-old-fashioned beauty of America – the land of rough edges and rugged individuals but undeniable progress. Here, it seems to say, even without a supportive network, without a formal education, a woman can still make her way in the world. The glass ceiling was real (and still is to a certain degree) but the space existed for it to be broken. The road to success is open to all – though some find it much steeper and rockier than others.

The film’s opening sequence describes it as “inspired by true stories of powerful women.” The original impetus apparently came from Joy Mangano, the real-life inventor of the Miracle Mop, but — as the film’s star has said in multiple interviews — the director’s imagination soon ran away with it, and he now disavows any intention to stick to a particular set of biographical facts.

Joy has been criticized for being little more than a bunch of Jennifer Lawrence gifs in search of a movie. There is indeed a sense in which, with its lengthy shots and intense dialogue, Joy could be reduced to a series of gif-able memes. But this stylistic choice allows Russell to dwell on the subtle expressions of his characters, those small visual cues that communicate the inner life. Joy isn’t shot like most movies. Its unusual compositions draw the audience’s attention to things they would not naturally focus on. For the most part this works, because ultimately it isn’t a movie about the travails of business. It’s about a woman in search of identity – or rather in a quest to recover identity.

As a little girl testing out her inventive skills, Joy decided her “super power” was that she did not need a knight in shining armor to come to her rescue. As an adult, she cannot ground herself in family and domesticity, because her family — including her parents, ex-husband, and children — is too dysfunctional for her to take care of all at the same time. Half of them don’t have jobs, and the porch is falling apart.

These supporting characters are so pathetic they border on the farcical and nearly sink the movie. In a questionable reach of irony (though one reportedly based on Mangano’s real life), Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) ends up being her most faithful friend and supporter even though he’s the only one with even a potentially legitimate incentive to cut ties with her. They were “simply the kind of people that worked better as friends than husband and wife,” the film explains. In a film with precious few heartwarming moments, I suppose that’s meant to be a nice sentiment.

Joy begins as the story of a woman haunted by her own lack of ambition, and ends as the story of a woman haunted by her embrace of it. She lives in a world that affirms the loss of her childhood ambition and stands to shoot it down at every turn. In order to get her idea off the ground, she has to strong-arm her own father to talk venture capital with his wealthy girlfriend. From this shaky foundation the story never quite gets settled. Any victory Joy achieves in her patent venture comes more as a momentary relief than a lasting triumph. Even at the peak of her success, the emptiness lingers.

Joy may set out to be an inspiring tale about “powerful women,” but it carries with it an implicit warning: it’s hard to find happily-ever-after with a business venture.

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