Joy is another prestigious, well reviewed, Oscar nominated David O. Russell film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro. I loved American Hustle, and liked Silver Linings Playbook very much. I looked forward to seeing Joy, and enjoyed it, too, though it’s an oddly, and I think deliberately off-putting film. The story, very loosely based on Joy Mangano’s invention of the miracle mop, which is one of the strange things about it; Mangano is listed as an executive producer for the film, but Joy, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence, is never referred to by her surname, even when it would make sense.
If you look at the film’s IMDB’s page, the first user comment says ‘it’s the uplifting tale of the lady who invented the Miracle Mop.’ At one level, that’s a straightforward description of the movie. It’s an uplifting story, certainly; a desperately broke single Mom invents a new mop, and becomes a bajillionaire. My wife’s response to it was ‘it could have been a much better film if they’d just made some different choices.’ This is completely accurate. But the choices Russell makes in the film are, I think, intentional. The result is a film I admired more than enjoyed. I actually it’s kind of brilliant and honest and good. Just not very ingratiating, or emotionally satisfying. It doesn’t have that triumphant feeling, for example, of the exhilarating-but-dorky dance contest in Silver Linings Playbook, even though it could, if it wanted to. Let me dig into it a little.
To repeat: It’s a film about a bright and talented lower-middle class woman who invents a better mop. She draws it up using her daughter’s crayon set. She applies for a patent, and builds a prototype. She gets it on QVC, sells it on that network, and makes a fortune. That’s a wonderful story, and it pretty much really happened; the basic outline of Mangano’s invention are all in the movie. And, as such, it’s a film about the American Dream. Anyone, no matter how poor or disadvantaged, can have a dream and achieve it, even a single Mom with a dysfunctional family. Joy’s breakthrough came when she persuaded the producers at QVC to let her sell her product personally, which hadn’t been their policy. That moment, Joy having her big breakthrough on TV, would be a great ending to an inspirational film.
But that’s not really what this film’s about. Early in the film, Joy talks to her father’s girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who has some money inherited from her husband, about investing in the business. Trudy has four questions for her, about her qualifications and background; normal stuff. The fourth question, though, is this: ‘there’s a gun in a room, and you’re alone there with a business competitor. Do you pick up the gun?’ (I’m paraphrasing the line, sorry). And Lawrence, as Joy, says ‘I pick up the gun.’
And that’s what the movie is about. Picking up the gun. In other words, this isn’t really a film about the American Dream; it’s a film about the ruthlessness needed to make that dream come true. Having a vision for a new commercial product isn’t enough. Coming up with some improbable funding source isn’t enough. Getting a break isn’t enough. Working your butt off isn’t enough. You also have to be willing to pick up the gun. You have to act ferociously at times.
And that’s where the film goes. (Sorry, major spoiler coming). The QVC breakthrough isn’t the powerful, exciting ending of the film. It could have been, but Russell doesn’t go that direction. When she finishes selling her mops on TV, she learns that a supplier has raised prices on her. She’s now going to lose money on every mop she sells. She confronts that supplier, and it goes very badly. She’s close to bankruptcy. But there’s another, more shadowy figure behind that supplier, and that’s who she has to confront. And that’s when she picks up the gun. Not literally, of course, but, yeah, basically.
It’s not just the story choices Russell makes with the film script, it’s the way he films that script. The film is stylized, non-realistic. As she heads off on a plane, Joy looks at her sleeping children through the windows of a plane. Then the camera pulls back, and we’re on the plane. Her mother (wonderfully played by Virginia Madsen), spends all day, every day, in bed, watching soaps. But we see the soaps, not as they would be broadcast, but as they would be filmed, with actors posed for a three camera setup, not conversing, but talking past each other. When Joy goes to see her supplier, she asks to use the restroom. She discovers a sort of tunnel from the bathroom to the production floor. This is never explained, and in fact, makes no architectural sense at all. But we accept it, because the whole film’s like that. Not quite anti-realistic, but certainly pushed beyond realism.
And we are, in fact, as Brecht would suggest, alienated. The cost of that alienation is that we don’t end up caring much for most of the characters. The actors are, with one exception, somewhat stylized, too. It’s true of De Niro’s performance, and it’s true of Cooper’s. Not bad acting, not at all. One dimensional, not fully characterized. But intentionally, to serve the somewhat chilly demands of the film.
The one exception is Jennifer Lawrence, as Joy. As always, her complete connection to the role, her utter commitment to the emotional center of her characters, carries the movie. In fact, she’s probably ten years too young to play Joy. A divorced woman with two children (Langano had three), a checkered employment history, a seriously messed-up family; we’re basically describing someone in, at least, her mid-thirties. But Lawrence is terrific in the role; never less than totally enthralling. Her youth put me off for two seconds, and then I was captured.
I admire the film’s honesty, though. It’s wonderfully uncompromising. In fact, the film struck me as a point-by-point answer to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Obviously, that’s ridiculous; pre-production for this film had to have concluded well before Trump even began running. But still, it’s a film that says ‘the American Dream is too alive. It’s harder than it used to be, and that’s a shame. But you can’t just have a good idea and work hard. You have to pick up the gun.’