David O. Russell is unquestionably one of my favorite directors working today. I first saw some of his films at a time when I was beginning to expand my filmgoing horizons, and Silver Linings Playbook hit me hard. I loved that movie to death and I still connect with its characters and its wit and humor on many levels. Less than a year later, American Hustle debuted and also blew me away with its stylish setting, phenomenal performances and a masterful sense of pacing and tone. From that point on, I knew that Russell could line up any project and I would be down for it. So when I heard he was tackling the story of Joy Mangano, the creator of the Miracle Mop, I was intrigued. I wasn't completely sold on the concept, but with Russell writing and directing the film and a cast led by Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, I figured that there was no way that this one could go wrong.
Well, maybe I should have been a bit more cautious.
Joy is not even close to being a bad movie. Very far from it, actually. There's a lot to like here, with plenty of strong performances and some trademark Russell moments. But as many critics have noted over time, Russell's films always walk an incredibly fine line between order and chaos. After his hot streak over the last few years, Joy is his first film in a while to fall onto that chaotic side. Noticeably tamer than his previous efforts, Joy feels like an odd clash between dysfunctional family drama, Godfather-esque business epic and fairy tale, with no style overwhelming the other. What amounts is a solid and occasionally compelling drama that feels monumentally disappointing in the aftermath of Russell's last two instant classics. But man, Bradley Cooper is really good in it.
Following the story of a the titular character (Jennifer Lawrence) over several decades of her life, Joy is an epic tale of family, business and power. Joy starts her life with big ambitions- she's valedictorian of her high school class, and is promised by her grandmother (Diane Ladd) that she will go on to do and create great things in her life. Cut to several years later, and things aren't going quite as planned. Joy meets and marries an aspiring singer named Tony (Edgar Ramirez), but the marriage falls apart rather quickly and she divorces him without hesitation. However, the two remain close and Tony ends up living in her basement. In addition to that, she's also living with her children, her soap opera-obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen) and her grandmother, and to make matters worse, one day, her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), is dropped back off on her doorstep. With a whole house full of dysfunctional, poor people, Joy needs a way out.
So she creates the Miracle Mop. The only mop you'll ever need. 300 feet of cotton put together by Joy herself. Self-ringing with the ability to put it in the washing machine when needed. This is Joy's pitch and after she receives a loan from Rudy's new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), Joy works tirelessly to sell her product and get out of debt. Her big break comes when she meets QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) who gives her the opportunity to sell her Miracle Mop live on TV. But just when it seems like things are going her way, Joy realizes that she has walked into a web of crime, deceit and treachery and that her next moves will determine her business fate forever.
Okay, let's get this one out there right off the bat- David O. Russell made the story of the Miracle Mop about as interesting as humanly possible. Because let's face it, the story of the woman who created a mop doesn't exactly scream out to you and make you say "Wow, that should be a movie someday!" And I have to give him a lot of credit for creating an interesting character story that is decently entertaining and says something about the undervalued and discredited contributions of strong women to society over time. Unfortunately, by straining so hard to make this story fit his traditional mold of storytelling, Russell's latest has lost quite a bit of the bite that made his other films remarkable.
First off, Joy is PG-13. Ratings shouldn't matter, but with Joy, it really changes everything. Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were far from hard-R's, but they were pretty liberal with the language and that freed Russell to take the characters in new and unique directions. Now, I'm not saying that profanity always makes film dialogue more effective, but in certain cases, it's essential. Imagine a Tarantino movie without a good amount of swearing. By making Joy with a PG-13 rating, Russell's film loses that acidity, that stinging intensity that Playbook and Hustle had in droves. Those two films have some verbal sparring matches for the ages. Joy has some moment where it feels like it's about to go down, but Russell holds back. This is some remarkably toned down stuff.
In addition to that, Russell really shot for the stars with this movie. Compared to his relatively small, intimate efforts in the past, Joy is stunningly ambitious. Attempting to tell the story of a character over several years is no small task and unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Russell was quite up to it. Joy bounces around time periods and doesn't really seem to know what part of the story it wants to tell- which is majorly problematic since all three stories have different arcs. Is this the story of a girl whose dreams were crushed by her ridiculous family? Is it about a woman who becomes a rags-to-riches icon overnight? Or is it a feminist story about a woman who gets tired of dealing with the system and becomes a Michael Corleone figure? Joy tries to do all three of those things and the result is less than desirable. If Russell had picked one and worked on it thoroughly, this could have been a mesmerizing film. But as of now, it gets pretty messy.
Nonetheless, there are still plenty of things that Russell's latest get right with the performances almost saving the entire film. Jennifer Lawrence's turn as Joy isn't as sweetly unhinged as her performance in Playbook or as completely bonkers as American Hustle, but it highlights her growing maturity as an actress. She's able to give plenty of nuances to Joy, and despite the occasional screw-ups of the movie, you constantly root for Joy. I wouldn't say it's her best performance, but this is by far the most difficult task she's been given so far, and she does some very impressive work with it. Robert De Niro is also solid as Rudy, although as I look back at it, there's no truly raw emotional moment like the one he has with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. He's there, he's funny and he acts like Robert De Niro. It's nothing spectacular.
Edgar Ramirez has good chemistry with Lawrence and De Niro, Elisabeth Rohm succeeds in creating a despicable character and Virginia Madsen plays a crazy person very well, but nobody, and I mean nobody in this film is as good as Bradley Cooper. And I think a lot of that is due to the fact that Russell knows how to write dialogue for Cooper. He stages Cooper's Neil Walker as a laser-focused, purely determined businessman who will cut your throat the minute you disappoint him. Walker brings an intensity and a drive to the movie that it was previously missing. For a moment, I felt like I was witnessing a whole different movie. When Cooper shows up, the movie jolts to life, and once again, his chemistry with Lawrence is terrific. He seriously deserves some supporting Oscar attention for his performance in this film.
There are also moments where David O. Russell's screenplay achieves dizzying heights. Even though Joy is a significantly quieter film when put in comparison to Russell's other movies, his dialogue still has a crackerjack power to it that serves all of the characters really well. But this time around, Russell's script has one major failing- it's let down by a narrative that is truly incoherent at times. The film's jumpy, wild story just doesn't work and the ending is a major letdown. For a film like Joy, one that gains a lot of momentum in the second half and gets better as it goes along, having a terrific ending is an absolute necessity. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen here.
If anything, Joy makes me appreciate the brilliance of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle more. I know that those films get a lot of hate, but they're able to do a very tricky, almost intangible thing that I struggle to put into words. It was a rare instance of a director making two films that just click perfectly, and the results were magical. Joy is Russell's latest attempt to recreate that magic, but sometimes, you just don't have it. Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro make for a formidable trio, but despite a smattering of engaging moments, Joy isn't the Great American Epic that Russell was hoping for (although I must give him props for trying something this bold). It's a fine small-scale drama that gets its priorities mixed up. If it had come from any other director, it might have received a better critical reception. But that's the burden of being an incredible director- when you hit so many home runs, sometimes a single feels like a strikeout.
THE FINAL GRADE: B- (6.8/10)
Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, Joblo