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!
And here’s where the bullshit kicks in. While poking fun at QVC’s costume choices from a position of aesthetic superiority, the movie buys into the deeper myth that personality is performance and performance is product. In a world willing to hand out participation trophies, the notion that each individual has something to sell is taken for granted, so the emphasis is placed not on the “product” but on the talent for selling it. Russell loses sight of Joy’s material achievement by pretending that people who are purchasing her mop in record numbers are actually buying into her. And while this is true in a sense, the movie turns truth into truthiness at the most basic levels. Maybe the home audience is buying into Joy’s talent, but mightn’t they be buying into her beautiful looks? The movie, however, is too focused on inspiration to cleave to sanity. This is to say, the film is trying to curry favor with feminists but presents a world in which sexism, and even sex appeal, do not exist. It asks us to accept that the 25-year-old Lawrence is a veritable spinster, and caps this off, no less, with an opening salvo of sanctimonious puffery in the voiceover: From beyond the grave, Joy’s grandmother intones that this girl is going to “make it” some day, and won’t need a man to do it. Either way you play it, this faux feminism is dopey. We’re fed the canard that success rests on personality alone. But even if that were true, it undercuts Joy’s real ingenuity, which is inventing this mop in the first place. It panders to our obsession with “optics.”
Joy is loosely based on the true story of the entrepreneur Joy Mangano, and it bears about the same compromised relationship to her as The Wolf of Wall Street bore to Jordan Belfort. This isn’t to say that I’m drawing a comparison between the two personally; she’s an outsider who seems to have accomplished something positive, all while remaining loyal to her family. We’re asked to celebrate her business chops at least as much as, if not more than, her inventiveness—and that’s all well and good, if you’re into that kind of thing. She’s the apotheosis of the Mary Kay lady, which, to a more modest cohort, was a feminist win. There’s also a sense that her need to maintain control over her mop likens her to an artist, as if it was a mode of self-expression rather than a utilitarian tool. Set that debatable, if fashionable, premise aside, however, and the film can still be said to extol the virtue of follow through. Unfortunately, the “origin story” imposed on Joy cuts against that virtue. When we meet her, she’s a hapless pushover: the high school valedictorian who’s sacrificed college to help out with the family business. Despite this setback, she isn’t blemished with a martyr complex, perhaps because portraying her character as flawed—rather than passively victimized—might be be bad for Real Joy’s brand. She’s a single mother of two children. She’s also raising her parents (Mother isn’t sick, but she’s bed-ridden by soap operas; Father lives in the basement) as well as her crooner ex-husband (Father’s roommate in the basement).
This is familiar territory for Russell, whose métier, since The Fighter, has been rust-belt farce. It takes pace and comedic style to scud through this prologue, but Russell and Lawrence have it, and so do Isabella Rossellini, as a rich widow who funds Joy’s invention, and Robert De Niro as Joy’s father (channeling our awareness of how bored he is, but also never letting the audience get past the character’s Mr. Magoo-like callousness). The family’s ramshackle house, perched in the snow like a candle on cake, is a sitcom stage. These neurotics are flung at each other like atoms in a collider, and Russell cackles at the way they bounce off one another. Joy has her eureka moment while cleaning up after this living mess; the Miracle Mop comes to her in a dream. Cinderella becomes Sleeping Beauty, with one exception: Since the screenplay is girl-squad all the way, she’s not catalyzed by the kiss of a Prince Charming. She simply wakes up a changed woman whose success is founded on not being a pushover. It really is a fairy tale. Joy goes from mollifying her family to managing it. The dogged personality that we’re meant to be inspired by essentially comes to her in her sleep.
Joy’s instant transformation isn’t the sort you’d see in life, but it is what you’d expect from a soap opera. In fact, the movie opens on an unfunny parody of soaps. Joy’s hermetic mother is addicted to these shows, but she breaks her addiction with a hair-of-the-dog cure: an “exotic” plumber who comes to fix a leak and plugs the hole in her heart. This may seem like knowing commentary on Russell’s part if he had followed through on it. We are supposed to draw a parallel between what this woman sees on television and what we’re watching on the big screen, but Russell never delves into how Joy’s mother became a homebody or why cheesy serial dramas provide so much comfort to people in her condition. Is he trying to convey the message that “dreams really do come true”? And, if so, is that meant to gloss over the vapidity of Joy? His self-awareness does nothing but get in the way. When his films erred on the side of schmaltzy in the past, he had a recovery narrative to fall back on. In Silver Linings Playbook, for example, Russell chucked the sports movie at the chick flick like a kid jabbing G.I. Joe at Barbie’s plastic lips. But the comedy was bracing because it was a thin sleeve over a scarred wrist. In Joy, there aren’t any scars left. They seem to have been healed by the filmmakers’ fairy-tale success.