With his latest tale of hustling entrepreneurs, David O. Russell employs a particularly loose directorial hand, allowing his narrative to scramble madly in myriad directions. And while this approach initially stokes the sort of low-grade mayhem that has made his recent screwball melodramedies so transfixing, the tonal tilt-a-whirl ultimately gets tangled up in the long leash it’s been allowed. As it pushes on toward the end credits, this quasi-biopic about as-seen-on-TV self-made millionaire inventor Joy Magnano chokes the life out of itself.
Few directors excel at assembling the wonky mechanics of dysfunctional families like Russell. Here, he’s housed his sideshow of underclass grotesques in a rickety suburban Long Island home that appears to be looking for an excuse to implode. Relinquishing the wild card roles of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence here inhabits a character who single-handedly lends ballast to a combative extended family that includes her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), who’s been left bedridden by heartbreak and neuroses; her crooner ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), who’s holed up in the basement; her saintly grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who lingers like an angel from Wings of Desire; her spiteful half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), who possesses a pit bull’s disposition; and her lothario father Rudy (Robert De Niro), who’s just been “returned” to the family by the latest in a long line of exasperated exes.
Charged with navigating a half-dozen equally fraught relationships, Lawrence is at the top of her dexterous game. Her Joy is a woman who’s spent her life learning how to coax instances of humanity out of kin who are more inclined to conduct themselves like feral animals. It’s a deeply sympathetic depiction of an indomitable woman who’s sublimated her own desires. While it’s evident that she’s her father’s daughter and a romantic at heart, circumstances have dictated she play the pragmatist. Consequently, there may not be a more cathartic sequence this past year than when Joy vents her frustrations by picking up a pump action shotgun and firing off a few rounds.
Russell opens Joy with a scene from the soap opera that keeps Terry anesthetized, thus serving notice that his film will be operating at a heightened emotional register. (The addition of Isabella Rossellini—playing Rudy’s combustible new flame Trudy—to his stable of actors is a masterstroke, as she’s well practiced in the art of hysterics.) And, with his notably stilted staging of the soap, he suggests the plot contrivances of daytime television are no match for the cutthroat tensions and desperate struggles that unfold every day in actual households.
Nevertheless, he raids the denigrated genre for one of its staples: the back-from-the-dead twist. Left with bloodied hands after quite literally cleaning up another one of her family’s messes, Joy’s long-dormant enterprising spirit is reignited. Reborn as a hyper-determined entrepreneur, she’s hell-bent on seeing her vision of a self-wringing Miracle Mop become a reality. (As depictions of rebirth go, Lawrence scribbling rudimentary designs with her daughter’s crayons trumps the sight of Leo emerging from a horse carcass in The Revenant.) After failing to get the well-crafted invention onto store shelves—it seems that retailers aren’t big on products that never need to be replaced—she finds herself down at the last chance saloon that is the burgeoning QVC network, presided over by Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper).
Russell’s love for over-caffeinated camerawork and borderline caricatures are well-served by the extended QVC chapter, which plays both as an antic backstage farce—replete with egomaniacal on-air personalities—and a sublime depiction of idealized domesticity and capitalism colliding head-on. As she takes her place in front of the cameras in a spick-and-span kitchen set that’s a world removed from her reality, Joy tentatively starts to pitch her product. Even amid such artifice, her genuineness shines through. In this moment, a home shopping star is born. There’s a beguiling sense of legitimate pride that she takes in her industriousness. This cedes to a heady mix of elation and redemption as her gamble pays off; a digital readout of the sales totals starts to resemble the display of a slot machine that’s paying out a jackpot.
Tragically, this dizzying sequence spills the film out the other side with no clear concept of where it’s to go next. As some of Joy’s ill-fated business decisions come home to roost, she’s left to play amateur detective and embark on an odyssey to California and Texas that elicits answers but nary an involving moment of drama. A climactic showdown may rank as one of the dullest encounters Russell has ever committed to film, with a supposedly Machiavellian puppet master’s villainy paling in comparison to the wickedness of Joy’s own flesh and blood. (Of course, one might argue this is, in fact, the point. Should that be the case, it’s been rather poorly made.)
Frustratingly, Joy’s final reel failings can’t simply be attributed to lack of effort. Russell possesses a work ethic to rival his heroine’s, and the presence of four editors in the credits suggests that every effort was made to fashion something that “works.” Such toil makes for a film that feels exhausted when it should be at its most exhilarating. Rather than going off the rails, Joy simply runs out of steam.
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell (screenplay); David O. Russell and Annie Mumolo (story)
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Elisabeth Röhm, Isabella Rossellini
Release Date: December 25, 2015