Finding 'Joy' in Adversity

You can read the triumph in Joy as just that, joy -- sheer and brilliant. You can also read it as cynical.


Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm, Susan Lucci
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-12-25 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-01-01 (General release)
"What is the problem with Michael Jackson?"

-- Captain Said (Saïd Taghmaoui), Three Kings

"You are going to grow up," Mimi (Diane Ladd) tells her granddaughter. "You are going to build wonderful things that you do in your room." That granddaughter is Joy, titular hero in David O. Russell's newest collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence. At this moment, surrounded by white light and what she's been building -- a white paper barn and horses and picket fences -- Joy beams, in love with her future, wide open.

In an instant, Joy cuts ahead in time. The little girl Joy played by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp is replaced by the teenager Joy (Lawrence), now shadowed by the frame of her closet door. Again, Mimi stands near, speaking softly: "You don’t exactly have your whole life ahead of you," she says, "but you do have a good portion of it."

This transition, funny and exquisite, lays out Joy's future in ways that are increasingly specific and also, increasingly wild. However, much of this future is difficult and stressful, what with her enduringly tangled relationships with her fractiously divorced parents Rudy (Robert DeNiro) and Terry (Virginia Madsen), an insidiously jealous half-sister named Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), and an ex-lounge-singer ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez).

Even with all these complications -- as well as a couple of adorable prop-like children -- Joy forges a future that is at least partly wonderful. This is partly because she continues to build things in her room. Here the film draws on its inspiration, the story of Joy Mangano, inventor of the self-wringing Miracle Mop, turned into a gigantic profits machine when she took to the airwaves on QVC. At the time, the early '90s, the shopping network was an innovation, as was the use of Joy herself as pitch person.

Here again, the movie makes a series of smart visual choices, as Joy first arrives at QVC and meets Neil (Bradley Cooper), an executive who testifies to its astounding power. Bathed in fluorescence, arms in motion, Neil launches this bit of nonsense: "In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every single day." With this, he strides between the kitchen-ish sound stage and the cameras, his eyes bright and his faith palpable, all the while observed by Joy, her face a mirror for his persuasion, won over and in love, again, with her future. She heads home converted, sure that the Miracle Mop will prove her salvation, and in turn, she will be able to support her chaotic family.

Taking multiple forms, the family business is Joy's in the sense that she keeps it running and takes melodramatic heat when things go wrong. Her family members constitute a Russellian collection of eccentrics, conveniently assembled in Joy's Long Island home, complete with plastic wood on the walls, a basement haven for her ex, and plumbing in perpetual need of repair. Joy's gift for fixing things covers all realms, mechanical and emotional, as she assigns basement beds to Rudy and Tony, breaks up Terry's floor to get at leaks, balances her dad's business books (he owns a garage), and keeps Peggy employed.

Joy creates order as if out of air, apparently resisting and also lifting from a broadly drawn context of pop cultural jokes. As her mother stays in her bed and loses herself in her soap operas, a background TV offers images of Susan Lucci and Laura Wright, aging and adjusting in a long-running show. Joy is set against and within the formula, another woman caught up in histrionic set-pieces, but resilient, finding her way out of the bedroom where she's been "building wonderful things".

Is there a way out? That's the question. By the same token, when Rudy finds a wealthy girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), Joy welcomes her into the fold, soliciting her investment in the company (housed in dad's garage) that will be making Miracle Mops. Here she's required to participate in another sort of melodrama, one shaped by Rossellini's crafted, crafty flamboyance.

"You were born to be the unanxious presence in the room," Mimi reminds her granddaughter. That's one way to think about it. Another is that Joy embodies the outsized fantasy that Neil sells on QVC, that she's both extraordinary and ordinary, one of us and not even close. Utterly endearing (she's Jennifer Lawrence, after all), Joy is also something of a perfect embodiment of the puzzle posed by Captain Said way back in Three Kings (1999). In Russell's wholly entertaining meditation on corporate culture, Michael Jackson is at the swirling center of a brutally exploitative system, at once product, victim, and beneficiary.

Joy, you know before the movie begins, emerges rich at its end. Here, as she faces down fraud, sabotage, and abuse of her trust, she seems a resurgent, confident, and healthier opponent to that system. She cannot defeat or change it. She remains at its swirling center, at once its result and its emblem.


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