The lukewarm reception of Joy will hopefully shake David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence out of the complacency that this bric-a-brac movie is surely the product of, but I want to take a moment to give them points for their sheer, batshit audacity. It’s a pleasure to think about and a pain to write about because it’s so chocked full of nuts that it’s hard to figure out which layers are intended as bullshit and which layers aren’t intended as bullshit but really, truly are. Wading in this septic think tank can put one in touch with the sublime; it’s like listening to an interview with William Shatner. But it can also be exhausting. Joy feels suspiciously like the last few Russell-Lawrence collaborations, but they power through this one as if under a 108-degree fever. They’ve sweat off the emotional weight.
First, the good stuff: This is a movie about a mop. That’s about the best thing I can say about it. I’ve never seen a film, or engaged with any work of art intended for adults, that has put a human face on household products. The mop is a symbol of our modern-day Cinderella’s domestic oppression as well as her ticket to freedom. More importantly, Joy in Joy makes the case that the mop mod she’s invented will shave minutes off your chores. Those minutes add up, and add value to your life. What Joy represents is utopianism on a granular scale: so granular that her ilk is often unfairly overlooked. Viewed through this prism, as-seen-on-TV junk is transfigured. Who knew that one might find an unsung hero behind ped eggs and lint removers and containers of OxiClean? Look deep into the food processor or up a set of knives and one might find the traces of a human being who was trying to make the world a better place. Joy sells her mop on QVC, back when shopping from home was a novel thing, and the film makes it clear that the network stands for something other than late-capitalist malaise. For a tweaker like Joy, it’s an honest-to-goodness platform for ideas.
Russell can make these points, and Lawrence can sell them through her dimples, all while going headlong into butterscotch-and-brown late-’80s kitsch. Their contrarian impulse has swagger, and it’s essentially humane. This is a female-empowerment movie without malice, but also, perhaps, without mental toughness. When one of QVC’s most experienced on-air personalities tries to shill for it, Joy’s mop is a flop, so the inventor decides to get in front of the camera herself. Bradley Cooper, as the slick head of programming, tries to weigh her down with bangle bracelets and gallons of hairspray, but she insists on going before the lights in plainclothes, so the viewers see the aw-shucks in her eyes. Guess what? It works!