Joy to the World

Nick Pinkerton on David O. Russell’s Joy

David O. Russell, Joy, 2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Joy and Tony (Jennifer Lawrence and Édgar Ramírez).

DAVID O. RUSSELL’S JOY, a biopic of home-shopping television personality and Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), focuses on its subject’s early years of struggle, though toward the end we get a glimpse of Joy as the self-made tycoon of later days, installed in her office behind the imposing desk from which she runs her empire, which doubles as a buffer from the world.

It’s a potent image, recalling the conclusion of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), in which Dorothy Malone, scion of Texas oil royalty, is left alone in her deceased father’s office, shouldering a new burden of responsibility. Joy, like Todd Haynes’s justly praised Carol, is in direct dialogue with the legacy of the Hollywood melodrama in which Sirk worked, and broaches some of the same questions that Sirk’s films continue to. To wit: Was Sirk, as he would later claim to sympathetic interviewers, smuggling critiques of American capitalism into his seemingly straightforward tearjerkers, or were the films precisely what they appeared to be? (Those inclined to see for themselves can do so in a knockout retrospective that begins today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)

Based on a script by Bridesmaids screenwriter Annie Mumulol, Joy may be taken on the surface as a celebratory portrait of actualization through the mastery of the business world’s mechanisms—unlike the broken, condemned Malone, Joy ends with an image of poise, power, and self-reliance. (“Inspired by True Stories of Daring Women, and One in Particular,” reads the film’s epigram.) Through the course of the film we see how Joy, out of necessity, develops these attributes. The movie’s narrator, Joy’s supportive, saintly grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), introduces our protagonist as a preternaturally gifted preadolescent with a passion for tinkering. We then reconnect with Joy as an adult, sometime in what appears to be the mid-1980s on what is apparently meant to be Long Island. Few of this little girl’s big dreams have come to fruition: Having foresworn a college scholarship for family obligations, she now works at an airline ticket counter, and shares a house that’s hardly a home with her two kids and her divorced mother (Virginia Madsen), a shut-in TV junkie. Dad (Robert De Niro) barely bothers to disguise his preference for Joy’s half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), who works with him at the family auto-body shop, though after things go south with his current girlfriend, that doesn’t keep him from moving back to share the basement with Joy’s live-in ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez).

Though most of her immediate family never shows any indication that they’re capable of looking past their own self-interest, Joy does have a few helping hands, like Tony, her childhood best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco), and benevolent Mimi. If there is any doubt that Mimi is a guardian angel, the fact that she continues to narrate Joy’s story after she passes away should put this to rest. Such supernatural occurrences are not unheard of, and the attempted tone of the film might be described as kitchen-sink magic realism. The birth of the Miracle Mop is presented as something truly miraculous, the idea for it coming to Joy in a burst of divine inspiration, and Russell treats this moment of inception as solemnly as if he were shooting Virginia Woolf conceiving of To the Lighthouse. Seemingly the answer to her prayers of escaping her dead-end life, the development and sale of the Miracle Mop only creates more problems, as Joy has to contend with unscrupulous and predatory businessmen. To take care of one, she heads all the way to Dallas for a face-to-face showdown and, emerging victorious into the Texas heat, basks in the artificial snowfall of a toy store’s vitrine—a Christmas miracle on Commerce Street.

Openly concerned with the interplay between mass culture and everyday existence, Joy begins by dropping us into a piece of black-and-white drawing-room drama, only to reveal that we are in fact watching the soap opera that has supplanted lived experience for Joy’s mother. The soap also happens to reflect the domestic turmoil of Joy’s own life in an exaggerated, histrionic register, even haunting her nightmares, but our heroine’s progress through the film may be described as a journey from passive consumer to active producer of mediated imagery, from receiver to transmitter. This happens by way of the at-first hesitant sponsorship of Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive at a newly launched, innovative cable company headquartered in Amish country: QVC. (It stands for “Quality, Value, Convenience.”)

The QVC studios are a wonderland where rotating sets transform kitchen to patio at the push of a button, Joan Rivers lives again (in the person of doppelgänger daughter Melissa), and a sales counter announces new fortunes made in a scant few minutes of airtime. The scenes here, in which Joy discovers her vocation as a pitchwoman, have a liberating brio found nowhere else in the film, though as soon as she leaves the studio her family sets upon her anew, increasingly resembling a predatory pack working together to bring down their prey. The most endearing thing about Russell is that he is—to a degree depressingly uncommon among directors of his stature—actually concerned with the lived lives of Americans hovering between genteel poverty and the middle class, a vast portion of the country that rarely sees itself represented at the multiplex. Problem is, aside from details of production design that might have been inspired by any episode of Roseanne—the laundry hamper on the ironing board in the kitchen and the coffee cup full of ballpoint pens on the table—he rarely depicts the milieu convincingly.

This isn’t to say that Russell or any filmmaker need necessarily constrain themselves to whatever passes for realism, but without a base-level foundation he tends to fall into a pattern of spastic effusion, a violent lurch accompanying each of the short-attention-span shifts in register. (Hal Hartley’s approach to creating a mystical-realist bridge-and-tunnel country is a worthwhile comparison.) Joy’s eventual escape and ascendance, covered in a Mimi-narrated postscript, has an aspect of blue-collar Cinderella wish fulfillment about it, as well as an undertone of melancholy. However, rather than find a way for opposing ideas to coexist and overlap in the same scene—think of the first meeting between the lovers on the floor of Frankenberg’s department store in Carol, which occurs at the busy intersection of class lines and desire both sexual and acquisitive—Russell’s movie staggers from one theme to the next, shrilly insisting all along the way that the viewer feel something.

It succeeds, but the result can’t have been the desired one: Russell’s films so often give one the feeling of being buttonholed at a party by a breathless, insistent boor. His latest is less peppy than pummeling, and in working desperately to keep the energy level up, Russell offers further proof that he uses pop-music cues worse than any other working director. His admirers usually cite his work with actors as his strength, but while star Lawrence is merely miscast—the part calls for someone with a few more city miles on them—practically everyone else is fumbling with untenable, one-note roles. The film’s turbulence might be meant to reflect the messiness of Life Itself, but the result is as phony as the stains meticulously daubed onto Lawrence’s dowdy single-mom blouses. It’s a dizzy, dervish-like movie that can be read as a celebration of capitalism, an economic cautionary tale, both at once, or total political confusion à la Russell’s Three Kings (1999)—but there’s little allure to look closer at a movie that offers little in return for leaving you so wrung out.

David O. Russell’s Joy opens in theaters on December 25.