When director David O. Russell gets things right, as in films such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, he can take the viewer on a magic carpet ride; however, when he gets things too garbled in movies like I Heart Huckabees or American Hustle, the rug gets pulled out from under us. Sadly, this is the case with his latest film, Joy, based on the real story of Long Island mop queen Joy Mangano, played by Oscar nominated Jennifer Lawrence.
Russell gets mired in a tale about Joy’s crazy family, which admittedly has some funny moments in the film, but it becomes too much of a Willy Wonka soap opera – with joy’s mother Terri (Virginia Madsen) basically living in her bed watching what else but a soap opera. Her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) and father Rudy (Robert De Niro) share a basement with a stretch of unrolled toilet paper as the demarcation line between their living spaces, while Joy lives upstairs with her two kids but mostly sleeps on the sofa or the stairs. Welcome to the dysfunctional Mangano family!
Russell uses flashbacks to show us the irrepressibly creative young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) who had big ideas that were shot down by her parents. Only her loving grandmother Mimi (Dianne Ladd) shows belief in her ideas, but after Rudy and Terri divorce there is a 17-year period of suppression of her dreams. Joy grows up, marries and divorces Tony after having two children, and ends up working in a nowhere airport job for Eastern Airlines.
One of the more difficult things to swallow here is having De Niro playing what is now his show up and say the lines role of the moment (see The Intern for what I mean). He seems thoroughly exhausted and tuned out by playing the role, but some may take this as getting into character. It just seems like such a waste to have the actor that once ate up his parts with such zeal in films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver now seemingly chewing on the script.
The saving grace of the film is Jennifer Lawrence. One fears that JLaw is taking on too many roles now that success has come her way, but she continues to surprise and delight in each part, sinking herself into the character and becoming imbued with the nuances of expression, accent, and mannerisms that display her acting chops.
Joy’s struggle to break free of the mundane snow-covered world of Long Island – where her father runs a garage and men are plinking bottles in the lot next door – is what makes this film worth watching. She wants more for her children and for herself, and the thing that I don’t remember ever seeing before in her films is Jennifer playing the part of a parent, and she does so convincingly here.
When Rudy starts seeing Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a woman from a dating service, Joy gets invited to a party on her boat. During the festivities, Joy breaks a wine glass and, as she is mopping up the red wine, cuts her hands on the shards in the mop. The bright idea for the Miracle Mop comes to her after this incident, and she goes about making drawings and eventually a prototype that she can show people. With some financial backing from Trudy, Joy is ready to take her mop to the people and make her dreams come true.
The problem here is that there are long stretches of yawn time in this story, and even when the conflict finally gets interesting – the company manufacturing the mop tries to steal Joy’s idea and leave her mired in debt – there is too much filler and the supporting actors seem to be bumping into each other looking for something to do.
One of the biggest disappointments is Bradley Cooper as Neil Walker, an executive at QVC – the place where Joy’s mop finally gets its exposure. Cooper and Lawrence usually have such great chemistry (see Silver Linings Playbook). His presence and the possibility of romance between Neil and Joy could have elevated this film to something memorable, but Russell doesn’t capture that in what is basically an extended cameo for Cooper.
The inherent difficulty in this story is that it is ostensibly about a woman who invented a different kind of mop. While Russell deserves some slack because it is a rough assignment to make the mop thing interesting, he brought in actors like Cooper, De Niro, Ladd, Madsen, and Lawrence who could have knocked the ball out of the park if only they had the right bats in their hands. Sadly, besides Lawrence, they all strike out swinging in this one.
Ultimately, Joy is a series of misfires and the only bang for the buck is Lawrence’s powerful performance. Getting to see Jlaw do her thing may be worth the price of admission, but in the end Joy does not do enough to put a smile on your face.
Photo Credits: foxpictures.com