It’s a real surprise that one of the most engaging and uplifting movies to come out of 2015 is centered around the creation of a mop. Joy is a film by writer/director David O. Russell, though, so there is much more swirling around that main plot point. Within the semi-autobiographical story of Joy Mangano – the entrepreneur responsible for the Miracle Mop – are the ups-and-downs of a real life Horatio Alger story, a nostalgic look back at the novelty of the QVC shopping channel, and a family drama reminiscent of a John Cassavetes film like A Woman Under the Influence.
Russell has had two major preoccupations in his filmmaking career. One is historical period pieces focusing on fictionalized events of true stories in the very near past, reflected by his films Three Kings and American Hustle. The director’s other mode is his intense examination of family dynamics, and the more dysfunctional, the better. That subject is represented by films like Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Silver Linings Playbook. Joy, like his 2010 film The Fighter, is a melding of the two.
Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russell frames his story of a woman struggling with the idea that she’s meant for greater things through the lens of a soap opera, an obsession of the main character’s mother. We’re clued into this with the movie’s introduction, an overwrought scene from the mother’s favorite soap that Russell stages with cheesy, histrionic glee. It serves as a key to the rest of the movie. Joy Mangano may be a real person, but just like soap operas are a melodramatic version of reality, the movie Joy is a fusion of real life and amplified drama.
While Joy’s mother, Terri, is preoccupied with TV soaps, her grandmother, Mimi, instills within her as a child that sense of greatness. In another nod to the soap opera aesthetic of the movie, Mimi, played by the fabulous Diane Ladd, is a sort of prophetic soothsayer. She sees great things in Joy’s future, and she encourages her granddaughter to fulfill her destiny. That’s about the only help Joy will get outside of her own steely resolve. A divorced mother of two, Joy struggles to make ends meet and her ex is an ever-aspiring musician who camps out in her basement.
Russell really digs into his dysfunctional family dynamics theme with Joy’s parents. Her mother and father, Rudy, are the kind of divorced couple who can’t be in the same room for more than three minutes without exploding at each other. The performances throughout Joy are splendid, but Robert DeNiro and Virginia Madsen, who is almost unrecognizable, as Joy’s parents are particular stand-outs among everyone else.
In just two films, Joy and Silver Linings Playbook (he also turns up very briefly in American Hustle), DeNiro has found in Russell someone he can feed off of creatively in a way that’s reminiscent of his past work with director Martin Scorsese. DeNiro plays Rudy as a sad sack narcissist with an ocean of rage just beneath the surface, which threatens to drown everyone around him at any given moment. Rudy can’t function without a woman to take care of him, so he eventually winds up splitting Joy’s basement with her former husband. This is an arrangement neither man is happy about, and it doesn’t sit well with Terri, either, who also lives in Joy’s house. As Joy’s mother, Madsen does some outstanding work as a woman who has given up on life. Unable to do anything without help, she has resigned herself to lying in bed all day, watching her soap operas.
Between the kids, her crazy parents, and a shiftless ex-husband, Joy is on the verge of a breakdown. This aspect of her story is what makes the movie a real feminist anthem. So many women find themselves in this situation. Like Joy, millions of women have to get the kids to school on time and schedule the plumber to fix the toilet clogged with hair, all with no help, and also without being late for work. Joy’s dogged determination to rise above all this and create a better life for herself makes her a hero on the level of Rocky Balboa. She is a force to be reckoned with, and Jennifer Lawrence does an outstanding job of actualizing every facet of the character. There is anger, grit, determination, frustration, and love simmering inside Joy, and Lawrence puts it all on the screen.
When Joy begs, borrows, and steals to put together the prototype for her miracle mop, she becomes the sole owner of a nascent empire. Like any great leader, she fights for it with every ounce of her being. A great example of this is when she demands a second chance to sell her own product on the TV shopping channel QVC. In a quirky subplot, we’re introduced to Neil Walker, an executive at the fledgling shop-from-your-TV network. Russell takes great delight in showcasing the world of home shopping, a concept in its infancy in the late ‘80s, and Walker, written as a knight in shining armor, is its most ardent supporter. Walker also plays into the soap opera aesthetic, but the way Bradley Cooper plays him is less interesting than that might sound. It’s one false note in an otherwise splendidly told tale.
Joy is a movie that anyone with hopes and dreams can appreciate. Her story about doing everything she can to see her own grand ideas thorough is universal. When you pair that with David O. Russell’s eccentric preoccupations and unique storytelling abilities, plus stellar performances, you get a product that sells itself.
Why it got 4 stars:
- I was really surprised to see Joy had a rating in the low 60s on the critic review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. I was completely caught up in the story, and the way David O. Russell told it. I completely bought in on an emotional level, and I think it's one of the best films of 2015.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Isabella Rossellini is a delight as Rudy's girlfriend, and a source of funding for Joy's business. The speech she gives Joy about a gun and an adversary in commerce is oddly hilarious.
- Joy could have easily been nominated by the Oscars for Best Picture. It's a movie with real emotional weight, as opposed to a David O. Russell movie that was nominated for Best Picure, American Hustle. I wasn't a fan of that movie; it felt hollow and superficial. Joy is the exact opposite.
- In addition to the exciting working relationship between Russell and DeNiro, the collaboration of the director and Lawrence is particularly special. I'm excited to see what the pair do next.