The one where the magical formula that was working so well for David O Russell, since he stopped making distinctive movies and instead ploughed a furrow of awards-friendly ones – which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy most of them to a degree, but pushing any kind of envelope apart from the one containing his big fat fee, they were not – ran dry. Joy’s a compendium of everything Russell assumed was right with his picture going wrong, from eager stars on tap, to air-punching emotionally-uplifting plot twists, to blindingly obvious soundtrack choices.
This very loose account of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano (so much so, her surname isn’t referenced) charters a divergent course in order that Russell can wing it with his medley of favourite moves. But the result is an unwieldy mess. His unbeatable run with Jennifer Lawrence (as Joy) runs aground fairly decisively. She’s decent, strong even, on a scene-by-scene basis, but utterly fails to convey a believable character. In part this is because Russell utterly fails to convey a believable world around her, but it’s also because, more unforgivingly than in their previous collaborations, she’s just too damn young for the part. There’s a point here where, no matter how talented she is (and I do think she’s talented), she’s just plain unconvincing as a thirtysomething mother and all-round family can-do-er, standing up to umpteen obstacles in her path. That’s just the most glaring of numerous problems, though.
Such as, you wonder just what Russell is trying to achieve, because if it’s in the service of the rewards garlanded for (female) aspiration, dedication and persistence in the face of the odds, reducing that achievement to an ill-formed final five minutes seems straight-up peculiar. Everything Joy does involves a rebound of pain and anguish, all of it crudely signposted in advance, and it feels almost as if this Russell’s token gesture towards the non-mainstream filmmaker he once was, wrapped in a sugar-coated bow; it’s that cynical.
The picture kicks off as an annoying two-dimensional character tour de force, going for the heightened and cartoonish in a way the writer-director can’t pull off (he isn’t a Burton or a Jeunet). And so, the parades of motley family members, their quirks and obsessions, is merely irritating. The blending of fantasy and reality (Joy imagines herself in the soap opera her mother obsesses over) flat out stinks (yet this is the guy who played with reality so deliriously in I Heart Huckabees).
Admittedly, it’s interesting to see Virginia Madsen playing something different (although Russell can only offer her clichéd subplots, such as an attraction to a Haitian plumber), and Elisabeth Rohm is absolutely full-on as Joy’s bitchy half-sister. But Robert De Niro crashes and burns so badly in an “Is he even awake?” half-embalmed performance, you can only assume Russell keeps using him because of some presumed kudos still attached to the name.
This is what you get when a director thinks he can do no wrong. And it’s pretty difficult to root for said filmmaker when he’s still up to the kind of bastardly behaviour he subjected Lilly Tomlin to a decade ago (only this time with Amy Adams). Joy’s punctured balloon feels like hubris well met. The picture does, momentarily, begin to find a foothold when Bradley Cooper enters the scene as a QVC director who becomes Joy’s salvation (even he has to be a stinker to her to get to that point, though; the whole thing is so calculated, that at a certain point, the tribulations no longer have any weight; oh look, grandma – ghostly narrator Diane Ladd, who instilled in her that achiever-ethos, the angel – is dead, cue some grieving).
After that, the plot dissembles into further family traumas for Joy; even the payoff of her putting paid to her fraudulent manufacturer lacks the oomph it should. She loves her family unconditionally, but the picture never really shows her standing up to them the way she should; indeed, the coda suggests that, far from being an aspirational figure, she’s a pushover, funding their failed schemes and getting sued by her malignant father (De Niro now even more ridiculous in old age make up than his earlier computer-assisted de-aging) for ownership of the mop.
It’s almost as if Russell thinks he can fashion a hit by selecting a true-life story from any magazine article he’s handed, simply by pasting in vague platitudes about perseverance and self-belief (perhaps we could all achieve the American Dream if it weren’t so plagued by ne’er do wells?) Accordingly, he appears to have stuffed as much emotional banality into Joy as possible, hoping it would leaven into some kind of sense in the edit. Instead, the tonal and thematic mishmash merely results in exasperation.