Joy is the kind of mythic tale of a heroic spitfire that should force us to stand up and cheer by the end. It’s curious, then, that this would-be inspiring story devolves into static monotone and stays there, like a lump, for the bulk of its running time. This is an epic story of success rising up from the casual oppression of familial responsibility, of a woman striving for a self-made life when everyone around her advocates for the surrender to the status quo. So why is the resulting film such a hastened encapsulation of the story, delivered with such low-key stillness?
Truth be told, this is David O. Russell’s lowest-energy film since Spanking the Monkey in 1994 – which was, incidentally, his first film, one in which he was essentially experimenting with tone in an effort to find his own unique point of view. There’s nothing experimental about Joy, though it does feel like Russell had to tinker with it so much that he eventually threw up his hands. The style changes on a whim, characters dip in and out of focus, and the tone diverts from quirky to glum just as it should be rising to a crescendo. Characters make pronouncements in extended droning monologues while the camera sits there, static and inert. Non-matching insert shots are pasted into sequences at random, like editing patchwork. It’s like the calibration is off just enough to cause irreparable malfunction.
It’s safe to say that any David O. Russell film is a teetering house of cards, with hysteric comedy delicately balanced with much darker implications. His recent run of incredible success with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, in which he has been able to deftly navigate tricky thematic and tonal terrain, belies just how difficult that navigation is on a consistent basis. Joy proves just how swiftly and unexpectedly the cards can come tumbling down.
Joy Mangano, prolific inventor of quaint household items and ubiquitous home shopping maven, is the film’s namesake, though to what degree the film deviates from her true story is up for debate, since Russell is fond of taking broad creative license (which, make no mistake, is not intended as an insult). In fact, Joy’s surname is actually never employed by the film. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman named, simply, Joy – the product of a broken home who grows up to be the glue that holds that broken home together. Her father (Robert De Niro) is a blustering Italian body shop owner, her mother (Virginia Madsen) stays in bed watching soap operas all day, her estranged husband (Edger Ramirez) still lives in her basement, and her two young children miss her presence, since she works long and late hours to make ends meet. But even as Joy’s own life is a complicated mess, she possesses ideas for how to make life easier – simple, easy-to-use inventions that can help ease the burden on folks who, like Joy, are already stretched way too thin.
Joy’s central thrust is the quest to turn these ideas into a lucrative career, which one would expect to come with many ups and downs, but one would also expect said ups and downs to move the meter in terms of narrative energy and emotion. The film’s first act has plenty, as the dense cast of characters is introduced and their quirky family dynamic is established. But once Joy sets out on her entrepreneurial journey – when the narrative should reach takeoff velocity – the tone flatlines, like the movie is waiting itself out. Even sequences that would benefit from Russell’s penchant for carefully controlled chaos – like Joy’s disastrous first on-screen QVC appearance – lay flat on the screen, dull and lifeless. By the end, the script (originally written by Annie Mumulo, then overhauled by Russell) has spent so much time treading water that it forces a hasty closing monologue by the Voice of God narrator that proves the film buried the lede, telling us all the interesting stuff after spending nearly two hours showing us a repetitive string of small-time failures.
I make the film sound so hapless and confused that it will sound contradictory when I say there is still something oddly endearing going on in Joy. Lawrence’s performance is frazzled-but-assured, the ideal embodiment of this character. And I kept rooting for Joy, if for no other reason than the film tries so hard to keep her down. But even success is delivered with a heavy hand by this movie, which tells a story worth celebrating but delivers it straight-faced, with a sigh.