Its time to have a look at David O’Russell’s mop-based biopic in my review of Joy.
This movie is one that has a lot of expectation riding on it. Not only is it David O’Russell’s latest movie in a very impressive run that has been going since at least Three Kings, but it is also the latest reteaming of super-onscreen-couple Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Unfortunately some have written his recent movies off as purely based around this hugely successful team that began in Silver Linings Playbook. Although his following films have largely reunited these two stars and a large chunk of the supporting cast and gone on to find success I would argue that this is not just because of the star power of the main couple, but actually more because he has been lucky enough to hit upon a group of actors and crew that he works extremely well with and fit the sort of material he prefers to film. This movie continues that theme with a stellar main and supporting cast and a strong overarching story for them to play with, but for all that, is not without its issues.
When you have a cast that is as star-studded as this one you can usually be sure that the performances will be of a certain calibre, even in a film that is nominally about a woman who invented a mop! This film does not disappoint on that front with everyone doing stellar work with their characters. Jennifer Lawrence infuses the titular Joy Mangano with a combination of beaten-down, dogged determination and a shy inspiration that lifts her above the petty lives of those who surround her, even whilst they do their best to drag her back down to their level. Bradley Cooper shines as Neil Walker, a supremely confident television executive who is so sure of his new channel, QVC, that he basically evangelises about it to anyone who will listen. Robert DeNiro is brilliant as Rudy Mangano, Joy’s selfish, blunt and obnoxious, dreamer of a father who seems to be subconsciously intent on ruining as many lives within his family as possible all whilst considering himself the hero of the tale. There are also strong supporting turns from Edgar Ramirez, as Joy’s ex-husband and staunchest friend and supporter Tony Miranne, Virginia Madsen as Joy’s totally shut in, Soap-opera obsessed and emotionally distant mother Terry (who I found particularly confusing as my wife insisted at first that this was Sharon Stone!) and Isabella Rossellini as the positively strange businesswoman Trudy, who also happens to be Rudy’s new girlfriend. I stand by the fact that these are all strong performances by actors who know their business incredibly well. Robert DeNiro especially shows that, although he has made a lot of films in recent years that have been less than amazing, he can still do things with a character that are both incredibly subtle and powerful when he wants to. The stumbling block for me was that none of these characters seemed to fit into the same film. In some scenes everything flowed nicely, but in others I found myself thinking that it was almost as though they were all acting in scenes from separate films, each giving a great performance, but not one that bounced off the others that were happening on screen at the same time.
Oddly unfitting characters aside, with these people packed into one small house in Quogue, New York, the stage is set for sparks to fly and for drama to be had. The film is at its strongest when everyone is packed into Joy’s house, often mostly uninvited, and arguments break out, leaving everyone to do their best to come out on top of the dog-pile. The feeling of crushing disappointment that Joy feels in her life, stuck in a dead-end job, with her ex-husband and her father in the basesment, her mother glued to her cheap soap-operas in the front room and the children needing to be fed, the plumbing needing to be fixed and everything else needing to be paid for, is palpable and entirely understandable. I often found myself very uncomfortable watching these sections of the film as they made me realise that this level of servitude is still very prevalent in society. Once we are immersed in this melange of drudgery and despair we are introduced to Joy’s childhood habit of inventing things. Her inspiration, it appears, is not something that has gone away, it has just been waiting for the opportune moment to reappear. A cut on her hand is the trigger and suddenly we are swept up into the main thrust of the story; Joy’s invention of, and stubborn drive to create and sell the Wonder Mop. This is again something of a problem for me with the film; it doesn’t seem to want to find a tone and stick to it. Some scenes feel like something out of one of Terry’s awful soap-operas, some feel like straight down the line drama, others are more of a stream-of-conciousness and even more are almost played as a comedy. I found these constant shifts something that got between me and my enjoyment of the film, especially as I was not entirely sure what sort of message they were trying to convey. There are flashes both forward and backwards in this movie and while there are those which are very obvious there are also some which are so subtle that I failed to realise that they were memory sequences or glimpses of the future until well into the scene. I should also mention the jarring voice over from Joy’s grandmother at this point, which jumps in and out of the movie at random intervals and seems to serve no real purpose, other than to point out the very obvious subtext of the scenes they are laid over. For the life of me I cannot figure out why this was left in the film.
Although I may sound quite down on the film I should reiterate that Jennifer Lawrence does an amazing job of a woman who discovers her inner strength and refuses to give up on an idea that she knows is something that will sell a huge amount if she can just get people to realise it. Her journey from modern-day slave to self-made millionaire is one that is entirely believable and incredibly involving. I think that without her to anchor this film the odd ways that the characters interact and the constantly shifting tone of the movie would have become overwhelming and made it something of a mess. As it is she is the rock around which the storm rages, unmoving despite the horrendous things that keep on happening to her. All told this is a very odd movie, which has many issues, but somehow managed to keep me interested throughout and is worth a watch.
Three Moons out of five. Solidly entertaining.