David O. Russell’s latest collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence is another dynamic tale of personal triumph, just as “Silver Linings Playbook” and, to a much grander extent, “American Hustle” were before it. And if we want to stretch beyond Lawrence you can put “TheFighter” in that same context. But “Joy” is a little bit more than those films; it’s the most fantastical project Russell has done since “I Heart Huckabees”, bringing a storybook quality to the hard scrabble story of real-life entrepreneur Joy Mangano. It’s a combination that doesn’t always work, especially as Russell indulges in some of his madcap tendencies, but he’s fortunate to have the one actress who can carry the film on her capable shoulders.
“Joy” is essentially two different movies all rolled into one, which is part of the problem. The first act, which begins with a fairy tale opening narrated by young Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) about the talented child, is about her difficult home life full of cartoonish and very familiar characters; familiar if you’re a follower of Russell’s work, anyway. Her head filled full of hopes, dreams, and potential, Joy has grown up and not realized any of it. Now she lives under one roof with all of the people who are holding her back in various ways: her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a shut-in who watches soap operas all day; her father (De Niro), who is divorced from her mother, lives in the basement where he constantly fights with Joy’s charming but aimless ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez). With a few kids to care for, a dead-end job at an airport, and a bitter sister (Elisabeth Rohm) watching her every move, Joy isn’t going anywhere, despite a natural gift for inventing things that should have taken her far.
After feeling too much like a screwball family comedy for far too long, the film eventually takes off when Bradley Cooper arrives, all confidence, charm, and swagger as Neil Walker, the head of the QVC network who gambles on Joy’s latest invention: the Miracle Mop. As he takes her around the spinning showcases where Joan Rivers (played flawlessly by her daughter Melissa) sells various household items to millions, the story becomes something entirely different, as well. As Joy steps out on her own into the rough and tumble world of business, the film also leaves behind its madcap tendencies and becomes leaner and meaner, a story of a brassy, no-nonsense woman ready to take what she has long deserved.
This is really what the film should have been about all along, although it’s fair that it wouldn’t be as meaningful without showing us Joy’s turbulent family life. But Russell also seems more interested in this aspect of Joy’s story because it allows Lawrence to be her most brazen, which is when she’s at her best. After every one of Joy’s various setbacks, usually caused by her scheming, treacherous family or her father’s nasty girlfriend/benefactor (Isabella Rossellini), we get a scene of Lawrence meaningfully firing off a shotgun or intimidating suppliers. Russell eats that stuff up; he saves his best tricks for when Lawrence is alone, cuing up the vintage score and adding a few visual flourishes just for her. He truly seems inspired by her, which makes sense because his renaissance from a somewhat troubled filmmaker has coincided with her emergence as a superstar.
This renaissance for Russell has also come with an unwavering populist streak, and “Joy” may be his most accessible film to date. We trust in Joy’s goodness, her maternal instincts, her loyalty, just as much as we loathe her spiteful family. It’s Lawrence’s multi-dimensional performance that sees us through the film’s rough patches. She’s asked to carry practically every scene, portraying a disappointed daughter, caring mother, loyal friend, shrewd businesswoman, and heartbroken wife. It’s a lot to put on one actress’s shoulders, but Lawrence does it with ease and yes, with joy.