The 2010s have marked a notable shift for writer/director David O.Russell. Six years separate I Heart Huckabees and his official follow-up, The Fighter, during which he worked on a film that he never completed himself, and which was finally released earlier this year as Accidental Love with a pseudonym crediting Russell. When he finally reemerged, he began a hot streak of films with serious Oscar buzz, particularly for the actors he cast in The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. And if one actor stands out among his collaborators from this period, it’s Jennifer Lawrence.
In both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, the roles Lawrence plays could easily be played by actresses years older than her. That’s not a knock on Lawrence, who’s done some of her most interesting work with Russell (and has the Oscar to prove it). But Lawrence is 25 now, and still looks incredibly young. It’s made for odd situations where Lawrence is both right for a role in terms of her performance, and miscast because certain innate parts of Lawrence just can’t sell aspects of these characters. This problem is more clear than ever with Joy; Lawrence is great in the role, but her character is the center of the film, and it’s a glaring issue that only contributes to the film’s flaws.
Based loosely on the story of Joy Mangano, Joy incorporates many of the notable parts of Mangano’s life into the narrative. Joy develops a flea collar at a young age, fails to get help in patenting her idea, then watches as Hartz releases a similar product a few years later. She turns down college, opting to stay home and help her family. She eventually develops the Miracle Mop, then succeeds in getting the mop featured on a then-new QVC, in part by promoting the mop on camera herself.
On its face, Mangano’s story is an interesting one to explore. For all of the films about the rise and fall of a business, regardless of legality, the films share a common theme: masculinity reigns supreme. By focusing on a woman, the film has the opportunity to show this kind of story from a new perspective. It’s clear that many of Mangano’s particular struggles come from the fact that she’s a woman, and she has to navigate through her professional life with issues a man wouldn’t navigate.
The problem is that Russell gets hung up on the idea of this story not just representing Mangano’s story, but a story that represents all women (an on-screen acknowledgment at the start of the film suggests just as much). Joy isn’t just a hard worker who’s also a devoted mom and daughter. She’s constantly facing greater threats from those around her, and Lawrence manages to sell Joy in a way that makes her seem both capable and deserving of the audience’s empathy. Those threats include her family, made up of a loser father (Robert De Niro), a fragile mother (Virginia Madsen), a supportive grandmother (Diane Ladd), an ex-husband who’s stuck around (Edgar Ramirez) and a half-sister who’s clearly resentful of Joy (Elisabeth Röhm). They’re all so loaded with issues, they threaten to overshadow the attention Joy can pay to her own children.
While individual moments with the family members work, thanks to the energetic performances on display, the supporting characters are largely one note – and those notes become louder as the film continues. The most abrasive turns here come from De Niro, Rossellini and Röhm. De Niro and Rossellini are far more cartoonish than the rest of the film, and their largely shared presence threatens to induce headaches towards the end of the film. Röhm, meanwhile, makes her widely derided turn on Law & Order as Serena “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” Southerlyn look well-rounded by comparison, as her character’s jealousy hits on the same vague complaints of being capable of coming up with (vague) better ideas than Joy. But even the more positive turns – namely, Ladd and Ramirez – offer nothing in the way of nuance.
The film is also hurt, to a degree, by a narrative that likes to lurch from one idea to another. Some of the moves exist within the main storyline, like when Joy first makes an impression at QVC. Others just seem to be dropped for no particular reason, like an opening sequence that’s staged to represent a different angle for watching a soap opera. Individually, the scenes work. As a larger body of work, though, Joy lacks a rhythm necessary to tell a story. Joy certainly doesn’t need to have a linear narrative, but the film needs some sense of cohesion, and it’s simply not here.
And yet, even in spite of the film’s many other issues, and the problem Russell seems to have in hiring Lawrence for roles that would benefit from a little more age, Joy isn’t an unwatchable experience. A lot of the credit goes to Lawrence, who turns in a performance that allows her to dig deep and long into this character. Whatever faults he shows with this film, it’s clear Russell works well with Lawrence. It’s worth seeing them team up again, even if Joy doesn’t work as well as their previous collaborations.