There was a time when the anticipation of David O. Russell’s next project carried with it the excitement of a Christmas package. No matter what he had previously achieved, he was always onto something radically different. Three of his first four films ranged from an angry, depraved coming-of-age tale (Spanking the Monkey), to a Desert Storm Kelly Heroes of sorts (Three Kings) and a quirky little ditty that seemed stolen from the vault of Wes Anderson (I Heart Huckabees). After that last film, Russell spun up the reliably crafted The Fighter, a satiating and admirable effort, but also something pat and conventional. From that point on, the cinematic pixie dust of unpredictability and quirk seemed to disappear from his films.
That’s not to say that American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook didn’t have their merits. They were exceptionally well acted (Oscar nods all around) and competently composed, but they were missing those hidden pockets of wonderment found among the rough edges of Russell’s previous work.
Joy marks more of the mainstream-friendly same, which is not a bad thing as it features the ever-determined yet effervescent Jennifer Lawrence back under Russell’s direction for the third time. But given Lawrence’s vast talents, is the inventor of the Miracle Mop, Joy Mangano, as worthy of a fact-based feature as the men and women who inspired The Fighter and American Hustle?
Russell’s latest follows your basic rags-to-riches arc, but with some interesting change ups and the director kneading in sardonic seeds of irony along the way. More interesting than the birth of that mop are the conditions we find Joy living under, a cramped Long Island home with her divorced parents (a stoic Robert DeNiro and a lurking Virginia Madsen, who’s nothing short of excellent), her aspiring lounge singer ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) living in the basement, and their two children. The place is remarkably civil considering all the broken bonds, and it deserves greater examination, but then Joy cuts her hand cleaning up a spilled drink and gets the bright idea for the house-cleaning device and all of that is forgotten.
So convinced is Joy of the product’s imminent success she convinces her father to enlist the mechanics at his garage to hammer out a prototype. Dear old dad’s new love interest (Isabella Rossellini in a humorously domineering turn) also possesses the necessary green to seed the project. It’s an unfortunate move dramatically, because, besides an occasional interruption from Joy’s jealous half sister (Elisabeth Rohm), the whole Finance 101 mumbo jumbo that ensues quickly becomes a dull, tedious bore. The best part of the early struggle comes when Joy and her BFF Jackie (Dascha Polanco) try to illegally sell the mops outside a K-Mart. However, once Joy makes the trip to the QVC HQ, a cement silo in Amish country, the film moves into edgier territory.
At QVC, Joy connects with the shopping network executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who with pen-in-hand, encourages her to crank out 50,000 units. It sounds like a slam dunk, but since QVC only allows ratings-vetted spokespersons and celebs, like Joan Rivers (played here by her daughter Melissa), to do the hawking, things don’t go so well — prima donna sales guy can’t figure out how to use the mop on camera. There’s also trouble with a Texas businessman who has a claim on the Miracle Mop patent, and some issues with a shady company in California that keeps upping their price.
Throughout the film, Lawrence endures all these trials and tribulations with a smile and steely resolve. But while these late developments add sauce to Russell’s film, we’re a long way from Joy’s strange home life, a weirdly harmonious world that is far more worthy of exploration.