Director David O. Russell disappoints with a not-very-Joyful new film
Money is the most American god, worshiped by the American people. Without it, it seems, there can be no success, no real living, only survival and subsistence in mediocrity. Americans must always be striving toward self-made millions—our heroes have no room for steady incomes and simple hard work, despite our national pastime of long hours and second jobs.
So from a certain perspective, it makes sense that we’ve had several major releases sanctifying leaders from the business world. They are our golden calves, our champions, our shared ambition. Steve Jobs, innovator of Apple products, who is generally regarded as not being all that nice, has garnered two Hollywood films about his life, one starring Ashton Kutcher that was immediately forgotten and a more serious one written by Aaron Sorkin starring Christian Bale.
Coming soon is “The Big Short,” the heroic story of Wall Street pirates with enough foresight to bet against the American economy just before the 2008 financial crisis that caused the Great Recession and cost millions of Americans their homes. And this Christmas, audiences are treated to “Joy,” the rags-to-riches story of Joy Mangano, QVC darling and inventor of the world’s first mass-produced, self-wringing mop. It’s enough to warm the heart of any coldblooded socialist and welcome them into the everlasting embrace of rampant capitalism.
To be fair, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) doesn’t appear to be a miserable, backstabbing businesswoman. David O. Russell paints her as a harried housewife and single mother whose dreams of making things are discarded along the path of a lower-middle-class trajectory. She has two children by her ex-husband, a handsome Latin musician who will not work and lives in her basement. She has a mother who is bedridden by choice due to her obsession with soap operas. She has a philandering father who runs a garage with her half-sister, a man without any property or possessions who bounces from love to love until he is unceremoniously dropped back on the front porch of his family. Joy herself works for an airline and muddles along as most people do, paying bills as their homes crumble around them.
But she has ideas! Great ones! About dog collars and mops and other small household items that can improve the lives of women just like her! And so Joy sets out on an unfamiliar journey to a life of opulence through determination, borrowed capital and, let’s be honest, an enormous amount of luck.
The film does an excellent job of simply glossing over the very unlikely circumstances Ms. Mangano finds herself in, instead choosing to focus on her single-minded belief in mops. The script makes a habit of setting up obstacles for Joy only to have her knock them over one by one with steely-eyed conviction and late ‘60s rock and roll. The naysayers, most of whom live in her house, are almost absurd in their negativity. The slightest setback causes them to throw up their hands in surrender on her behalf. That’s the film’s ham-fisted method of characterization. Almost every scene involving these obstacles feels contrived, and were it not for the talent of Jennifer Lawrence the film wouldn’t work at all.
The few glimmers of humor are overshadowed by the movie’s clumsy storytelling and the bizarre choices made by the filmmakers. The lives of salesmen are not quite as interesting as Hollywood hopes, no matter how many cathartic shotgun blasts are shoehorned into supposedly meaningful scenes. “Joy” seems to be an appeal to a narrow-minded group of conservative-leaning audience members who see the almighty dollar as the only measure of a person’s success. I suppose those people need movies, too.
The most disappointing part of “Joy” is that it is a David O. Russell film. David O. Russell has made excellent films in the past. “Joy” is just not one of them. It would be easy to place the blame at the foot of the writers, but as Russell also wrote the screenplay, there is no way to pass the buck.
Everyone can have a compelling story—everyone’s life is full of human experience and emotion, tragedy and comedy, successes and failures.
But the story is only as good as its storyteller, and in this case, the story isn’t worth hearing.