Sunday, December 27, 2015

New movie review: Joy

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy in writer-director David O. Russell's new film Joy.

Joy Mangano is a smart, industrious woman who has made a fortune inventing and selling practical products for everyday people. Her two most famous inventions are the Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers, the latter of which is the highest selling product in the history of the Home Shopping Network. Mangano is a brand unto herself, and in interviews and on television, she comes across as someone excited to share her ideas with people and still a little baffled, two decades on, at the enormity of her success.

That version of Mangano does not really make an appearance in writer-director David O. Russell’s Joy, which takes the bare bones of the true-life story and adds in other true stories and flights of fancy from Russell. The result is a film that always seems on the verge of spinning out of control, and the only reason it does not is because of the fantastic central performance by Jennifer Lawrence holding everything together.

Lawrence plays Russell’s version of Mangano, though in the film, she is known only as Joy and never given a last name. Joy is a divorced, single mother of two, whose mother (Virginia Madsen) lives upstairs and whose ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) lives in the basement. When the movie begins, her father (Robert De Niro) also moves into the basement. These are contrivances to set up the idea of a woman who feels trapped by her circumstances and just needs the right motivation or idea to break out of it.

You will not have much trouble picking up on this, but if you miss it, Russell lays it out for the audience with a children’s science book about cicadas, which can hide underground for up to 17 years. Joy points out what a random number this is, particularly as it matches the length of time she has kept the entrepreneur and innovator inside herself hidden. Get it? The film trades throughout in this kind of heavy-handed symbolism, which never builds to any coherent thematic idea. They are just thoughts floating around until Russell likes one enough to employ it.

Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Joy.
When Joy decides to come out of hiding, it is with her newest invention – the Miracle Mop. Sparked by sudden inspiration, she takes to her daughter’s room and sketches out the initial designs in crayon. She builds it, finds investors, and sets about selling the new product door to door and parking lot to parking lot. Her ex-husband, who is also her best friend, suggests a meeting with his old school chum (Bradley Cooper) who works at a new kind of television channel: QVC.

At this point, the movie starts going through the motions of telling a classic rags-to-riches story, complete with a second mortgage, a failed first attempt to sell the mop, threatened bankruptcy, and a last-ditch effort to save her company, her invention, her home, and her family. There is some business about a patent dispute – as there is with just about every film about an inventor or an invention – but even while integral to the plot, it seems peripheral to the storytelling. Russell just does not seem to know what kind of movie he wants to make.

This is perhaps because it was not Russell’s story to begin with. Annie Mumolo, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Bridesmaids, developed the story for her own original screenplay, which stuck more closely to the details of Mangano’s life. When Russell came onto the project, he added enough of his ideas and changed enough of the script to get a co-story credit and sole writing credit, which is fine, and Joy feels very much like a Russell movie.

Let’s imagine for a second, though, a world in which Mumolo’s original script is made by a strong, independent-minded female filmmaker – say, Sarah Polley. Maybe in that world, Joy is a film with the guts to tell the straight story of a brilliant female inventor who has a plan, works hard, and achieves success. Maybe in that world, it is a film filled with rich female characters, all with their own inner lives and motivations. Maybe in that world, the film is a great work of art that says something interesting about women’s place in society and in business in particular.

Instead, we live in this world, in which Russell has attached superfluous genre tropes to his filmmaking, populated the edges of his story with grotesque female caricatures, and failed to say anything meaningful about Joy’s place in the culture. Ultimately, Russell’s film is a lot of smoke and no fire with one clear exception – Lawrence.

At 25 years old, Lawrence is a world-famous star, an Academy Award-winning actress, and a giant box-office draw. She also has been the lead of only about a dozen or so feature films, something that is easy to forget given her cultural ubiquity. She is still learning and growing just about every time she steps in front of a camera, and in Joy, she delivers her best work yet. She may not be portraying the real-life Mangano, who was almost 15 years older than Lawrence during the events depicted, but she is certainly channeling that woman’s inner strength and intelligence.

The film around her may be a muddle, but there is nothing confused about Lawrence’s performance. It is an aspirational character, the kind more actresses deserve the chance to play and the kind more young girls deserve the chance to go to the movies and see. Lawrence makes the most of the shamefully rare opportunity to show a bright, powerful woman, and her work is a sight to behold, worth the price of admission on its own. Unfortunately, the movie simply does not live up to that standard.

See it? No.

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