I’ve seen David O. Russell’s last three films, not counting the ill-fated Accidental Love nee Nailed. And I can barely remember a thing about them. I remember Christian Bale and Amy Adams overshadowing Mark Wahlberg, who was supposed to be the eponymous star of The Fighter. I remember how Silver Linings Playbook put an emphasis on ludicrous superstitions as a flimsy way to blame the main characters for whatever went wrong in a televised football game. And I remember Jennifer Lawrence rage-cleaning to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” in American Hustle. Other than that, nothing much jumps out.
Basically, it seems like Russell’s works are defined by eccentric, unlikeable characters yelling at each other over various self-made problems and petty bullshit. That’s not to say it can’t be entertaining, especially when the dialogue is so well-written and performed by such incredible talents. But Russell’s work is missing something under the surface, something smart and compelling enough to stay with the audience and keep them coming back.
I wasn’t expecting Joy to break the mold, since the trailers showed nothing but Jennifer Lawrence arguing with everyone else and engaging in possibly criminal acts. More of the same stuff that we’ve seen in the aforementioned Russell films, basically. And sure enough, more of the same is exactly what we got.
This is ostensibly a biopic about Joy Mangano, who made her millions by inventing a self-wringing “Miracle Mop” and selling it on TV. Yet Joy herself (Lawrence, of course) is never introduced by her full name in the film, and her Miracle Mop is never given a name either. Maybe it was done this way for legal reasons, I couldn’t tell you. Furthermore, the opening title card tells us that this film was inspired by “strong women everywhere, and one in particular” (I’m paraphrasing, but still). It’s basically what Russell did in American Hustle, openly acknowledging that what we’re seeing is only a loose adaptation of what really happened. The resulting movie falls in an awkward middle ground, such that the proceedings are too ridiculous to have ever happened, and yet we can see a glimmer of the potentially far more interesting story that really did happen.
The characters are all painted in very broad strokes. My personal favorite example is Joy’s mother (Terry, played by Virginia Madsen), a neurotic shut-in who can’t do a single goddamn thing for herself other than sit in bed, watch soap operas, make a mess, and complain. As for Joy’s dad (Rudy, played by Robert De Niro), he’s a wreck who makes a hobby out of crushing dreams and tearing through girlfriends. His latest is an eccentric rich widow named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). Then we have Joy’s jealous half-sister (Peggy, played by Elisabeth Rohm), her generic best friend (Jackie, played by Dascha Polanco), and her deadbeat ex-husband (Tony, played by Edgar Ramirez). Rounding out the supporting cast is Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an amoral businessman who will support Joy’s venture so long as it suits him.
(Side note: Keep an eye out for Melissa Rivers, who appears as her own iconic mother in a cameo role.)
With the sole exception of Joy’s grandmother (our kindly old narrator, played by Diane Ladd), every single character in this whole damn movie somehow contributes to the list of reasons why Joy’s life as a single mother/budding entrepreneur/inventor is a living hell. Her business partners screw her over at every opportunity, her mentors give useless advice, her family holds her back because they can’t do a thing without her, and everyone takes every opportunity to leech off whatever success Joy finds. And no one can say anything except “You’re a broke unemployed housewife, a total nobody, it’s your own fault for thinking that you could succeed at anything, you lost, get over it.” No joke, De Niro gets a speech at the 90-minute mark where he says all of that pretty much verbatim.
If the movie was trying to go for a feminist bent, it’s only kinda there because our protagonist just happens to be a woman. In fact, this is a much more straightforward underdog rags-to-riches tale, complete with all the usual tropes, cliches, story beats, and character stereotypes you’d expect. And as much as I appreciate the optimistic message that any one of us could be the next self-made millionaire, it’s a story we’ve already seen millions of times, with themes and messages that had already been drilled into each and every one of us before we were even teenagers. Additionally, if the filmmakers really wanted to tell this story to spread this inspirational message, they might have done a more effective job by sticking with the rags-to-riches story that really did happen, instead of presenting it with so many flat characters and resolutions that come way too easily.
But of course, as with all of Russell’s films, it’s the cast that keeps the movie salvageable. Lawrence turns in her most intensely passionate performance since Winter’s Bone, and De Niro is suitably funny yet pathetic as the old curmudgeon. Another highlight is Bradley Cooper, brimming over with energy and charm as the sort of businessman who’s easy to like and nearly impossible to trust.
Really, everyone in the cast is either fun to hate or easy to ignore entirely. There isn’t much of a middle ground. It makes for a fun time watching these characters tear each other apart, but when the film is over, they leave us with nothing.
Joy tries to be an inspirational underdog story, but the presentation is so bitter, with such flat characters who are so easy to despise, that it plain doesn’t work. What’s more, the presentation is so blatantly artificial and ridiculously heightened that it gives an impression of insincerity. That’s a dealbreaker, because this is a message that can only work if the filmmakers believe it as much as they want us to. So instead of a movie that inspires us to keep on pushing for greatness, we’re left with a movie about how the world is a cruel and unfair place that doesn’t owe us a thing, that we can’t really depend on help from anyone except ourselves, and the only way to carve out a living is to fight for it tooth and nail. The difference is subtle, but it makes for a film that isn’t nearly as uplifting as the filmmakers might have been hoping for.
The performances and the dialogue are good enough that the film isn’t a total waste, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it picked up a few more Oscar nominations for the filmmakers involved. But if Russell is ever going to get that trophy, he’s got to come up with something more creative and moving and genuine than this.