With Joy, David O. Russell does Frank Capra, and it just doesn’t work. In this tale of an example of the American dream working, Russell has given it a sprinkling of fairy dust, shown by two key scenes in which snow (in one case, artificial) falls on her. It recalls It’s a Wonderful Life, but while that film was in a time and place where the American dream was thriving, Joy doesn’t seem real. The American dream is dead.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy, who is loosely based on Joy Mangano, who invented the Miracle Mop, sold it on home shopping channels, and made millions. I have no idea what her real story was, but here we get a distinctly Hollywood notion. For one thing, Joy’s last name is never said, perhaps because Lawrence looks about as Italian as the Swedish Bikini Team. As good as an actress Lawrence is, she is miscast. She’s supposed to be a put upon single mother, driven out of her mind by nutty family members and struggling to pay her mortgage. But there’s not a line on Lawrence’s face–not a single crow’s foot. I agree with a reviewer who said Marisa Tomei would have made a good choice.
The spine of Joy is don’t give up on your dreams. Lawrence plays the character as someone who normally suffers in silence, whether being casually insulted by her bombastic father (Robert De Niro), her nasty half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm), or a variety of business types she meets. The one who actually listens to her is Bradley Cooper, who runs QVC, and purrs to her like a character from Glengarry Glen Ross about the keys to selling (it’s not the face, it’s the hands). I liked this part of the film best, getting a glimpse into that whole world, where viewers are practically hypnotized into buying. I also really liked Melissa Rivers’ brief but spot-on impersonation of her mother, Joan.
But the family drama stuff is badly paced and feels like forced eccentricity. Lawrence’s mother, Virginia Madsen, spends all day watching soap operas, which we see starring real-life soap stars like Susan Lucci, and they don’t feel right. De Niro, divorced from the mother, takes up with a rich woman, Isabella Rossellini, who seems to have strolled out of a Coen Brothers’ film. Diane Ladd plays Lawrence’s patient grandmother, but I just couldn’t buy into the whole thing.
I also found some of the business dealing inauthentic. Without knowing what really happened, I find it hard to believe that Joy found her manufacturer was screwing her over by wandering through a door in a restroom, and the final showdown in a Texas hotel room is pure Hollywood and completely unbelievable.
I’d like to think the American dream is still available to everyone, but the growing income inequity is the U.S. has pretty much killed it off. Joy was lucky someone didn’t steal her design, and her story is less about following your dreams than a stroke of sheer luck.
Beyond that, Joy seems unformed and not completely though out. During Russell’s run, I’ve really only loved Silver Linings Playbook, and found The Fighter and American Hustle wanting. I’d add Joy to that list.