If you've ever found yourself doubting the talent of Jennifer Lawrence, you only need look toward her latest flick, the David O. Russell penned and directed Joy, a fictionalized tale based upon the very real life of Joy Mangano, a self-made millionaire and inventor of the Miracle Mop, one of the QVC Channel's early product wonders and biggest hits.
Lawrence almost singlehandedly rescues Joy from its damned near downward spiral into faux inspiration and joyless triumphs over adversity and life circumstances. Every time one starts to think that Joy is about to sink it seems like Lawrence rises to the challenge and takes her unique and inspired take on Mangano a fresh, new direction that lights up the screen once again.
Joy falls significantly short of Russell's most recent efforts, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, the latter being a film for which I didn't particularly care but still admired greatly. Joy, on the other hand, is hard to both enjoy and admire. It's a rather joyless celebration of one woman's ability to re-invent herself and her life circumstances despite a male-driven corporate world and a family so dysfunctional that you can't help but wonder if it's the family that Robert Earl Keen sings about in his alternative Christmas diddy Merry Christmas From the Family.
The film's opening sequence offers something resembling greatness, both Joy's and Joy's. her younger version already boldly announcing her future independence, "I don't need a prince," while beginning what will be a lifelong devotion to deep thoughts and practical inventions. Fast forward to her life post-high school graduation and the valedictorian has skipped out on a college scholarship to play caregiver for a family that is always one busted pipe away from completely falling apart. She lives in the family home with her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), an emotional invalid reduced post-divorce to watching soap operas and avoiding anything resembling human contact. Joy's ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), a wannabe crooner who fancies himself to be the next Tom Jones, lives in the basement while Mimi (Diane Ladd), Joy's grandmother serves the almost obligatory role as Joy's constant encourager and believer in miracles. When his latest wife decides she's had enough of him, Joy's father Rudy (Robert De Niro) returns to the family abode and no one, despite his almost instantaneous abusive behavior, has the balls to kick him out. I suppose that works out the best for Joy as he very quickly takes up with Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a wealthy widower whose financial support is vital if Joy is to take her Miracle Mop to the masses.
Unfortunately, Joy never really lives up to the promise of greatness in that opening scene even if it does pick up quite a bit of emotional steam in its second half when Joy finally starts to live into name and becomes bolder and brasher and more determined to break out of the cycle of poverty and dysfunction that has defined her life thus far.
Despite being a tad too young for the role and I'd dare say even potentially miscast, Lawrence completely owns this performance and brings it to life in a way it's hard to imagine anyone else doing. It is clear that Russell and Lawrence have a very special working relationship, though it's equally as clear that it's time for Russell to move on to life after Lawrence. Joy actually most closely resembles Russell's The Fighter, a film that equally features just how much a family's dysfunction can keep us from championing our own paths yet a film that also reminds us that there's always a way to fight our way through every obstacle.
At his best, Russell has never been a completely neat and tidy director. Russell's films and filmmaking style have always been authentic and honest and chaotic and impulsive. For the most part, you either love or hate his films. I think the same is true for those actors who choose to work with him. Lawrence, a 25-year-old actress who seems to have not yet forgotten her roots and seems to embrace the full spectrum of what it means to be a rising Hollywood star. Joy is a flawed film, though Joy's was a flawed path and anything different would lack the honesty that Russell always serves up. The film doesn't warrant the Oscar buzz it will inevitably serve up, though Lawrence herself serves up an awardworthy performance that is most certainly one of the year's best.
It seems as if the ensemble cast around her recognizes that this is a Lawrence vehicle and they wrap themselves tightly right around her in a non-showy fashion. While much is made of Bradley Cooper's reuniting with Lawrence, as QVC exec Neal Walker Cooper's spark with Lawrence this time around is both as friend and adversary, a fact reflected in one of the film's frequent Mr. Obvious pronouncements.
The truth is that Cooper is good here, yet wasted. The same is true for De Niro, though De Niro is a good enough actor that he knows what the character needs and he seamlessly weaves himself into it. Edgar Ramirez adds a nice warmth as Tony, Joy's ex, a good guy whose ongoing loyalty to Joy is relentless and refreshingly devoid of unnecessary drama. Rossellini clearly enjoys working with De Niro and the two enjoy a fun spark. Having worked with David Lynch before, Rossellini seems to, maybe more than anyone but Lawrence, understand the underlying vibe that Russell is shooting for here as he somehow assembles an almost dreamlike soap opera within a story about real life.
In other words, while Joy may not always work there's always a whole lot more going on than it really seems. There is a fairy tale like quality contained within Joy, though it's an adult fairy tale, at times a rather grim one. The film promises a better ending than is delivered, though the ending arrives a good fifteen minutes after the story itself should have ended. While the ending is satisfying on some intellectual level, it's wholly anti-climactic and devoid of anything resembling emotional resonance or fairy tale magic. It's as if, for some unsatisfying reason, Russell has decided the fairy tale has ended and he must pull us back into late night television reality before he lets us leave the movie theater.
There are some fun cameos in Joy including an inspired appearance by Melissa Rivers that made me blink twice and laugh. Joy opens Christmas Day nationwide. While it is likely destined to experience more indie box-office numbers, especially in the long shadow of a certain global force, Joy may finally be the film that convinces a wider audience that Jennifer Lawrence truly is a Hollywood star to be reckoned with and this is quite likely her best performance since her breakthrough in Winter's Bone.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic