Success is the Best Revenge: Russell’s Embellished Portrait of the Miracle Mop
Director David O. Russell has been often praised for the depictions of women throughout his filmography, beginning with an unforgettable Alberta Watson in his debut Spanking the Monkey (1994). Amy Adams, who starred in The Fighter (2010) and American Hustle (2013), publicly thanked the director for his generous roles for actresses, and he’s finally anchored a film around the perspective of a woman with Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence in their third collaboration together (she won her Oscar for his 2012 title The Silver Linings Playbook). You wouldn’t know it up front, though the opening credits announce a dedication to spirited women everywhere, basing this on one perseverant woman in particular, but Russell is relaying the (exaggerated) story of Joy Mangano, the person behind the invention of the Miracle Mop. Recalibrated for Russell’s particular flavor of odd, broken down and haphazardly re-fashioned familial dynamics, there is much to admire from his latest venture, particularly for the sincere performance from Lawrence. But kooky caricatures of Joy’s obnoxious home life, littered with too many zany, overblown quirky people, butts up oddly against a resoundingly compelling second half.
Mimi (Diane Ladd) narrates the journey of her granddaughter Joy (Lawrence), a resilient young woman she knew would be headstrong enough to make a difference in the family. Joy’s mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) divorced her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) ages ago, and the three women live together, mostly supported by Joy since Terry stays in her room all day watching soap operas. Joy’s own ex-husband, Venezuelan singer Tony (Edgar Ramirez) still lives in the basement, also helps watch their two children together. But when Rudy’s new girlfriend drops him off at the doorstep and he also moves in downstairs, Joy starts to rethink about all her dreams deferred. When Rudy meets a new, rich girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), Joy takes the chance at her entrepreneurial desires by hitting up the woman for a loan to develop her idea for a mop which would eventually become famous.
Joy is basically an underdog narrative, comparable to what was once defined as the studio era ‘women’s picture,’ reminiscent in particularly, of something by George Cukor or several Joan Crawford vehicles where the strong willed star portrayed her signature ‘girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ shtick. Joy’s rise to the challenges of the male-dominated system recalls something like Mildred Pierce (1945), or perhaps more age appropriately, Sadie McKee (1934), another titular Crawford character where she’s subjected to a roller coaster of dramatic events thanks to the men in her life.
Once we get through the preposterousness of Joy’s home-life, where De Niro portrays another overbearing harpy and Virginia Madsen is a soap-opera addicted shut-in (only Isabella Rossellini and Diane Ladd survive the script’s cloying peculiarities in these segments), the film revitalizes itself as Lawrence takes control and steers her destiny through multiple storms. There’s a comfortable energy evident between Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (in a smaller role as an executive for QVC), this being their fourth pairing (including the two other Russell films and the overwrought Susanne Bier film, Serena), and also when the narrative delves into the workings of the television shopping network, (featuring Melissa Rivers playing her mother Joan), where it perfectly balances Russell’s usual sparring energies of extended zaniness and emotional sincerity (a definite stand out is a lovely moment shared between Lawrence and Dascha Polanko as her best friend during Joy’s premiere on television).
Elisabeth Rohm, as her older, antagonistic half-sister, comes across as a cartoon villain since we only get snippets of Joy’s connections to her family members via assorted flashbacks. This enhances the superficiality of their interactions to the degree these characters are basically a more polished version of the soap opera Madsen’s character is obsessed with (actual soap stars Susan Lucci, Laura Wright and Maurice Bernard are on hand to poke fun at themselves). It’s a pleasure to see Diane Ladd in her most significant cinematic appearance in years, but she looks so good it hampers dramatic events which eventually transpire character.
As inspiring and motivating Lawrence’s depiction of Joy may be, the only reason her invention was allowed a chance to succeed was thanks to the money supplied by her father’s uptight new love interest (with Rossellini seemingly the only one capable of channeling cuckoo energy into bemused bliss). Meanwhile, the film feels a bit disjointed (four different editors are credited), gliding from its sitcom gimmick to a rags to riches empire to a truncated fantasy ending where Russell may as well have put Joy’s name up in flashing neon lights behind Lawrence’s swirled beehive as she fosters new, struggling talents walking into her swanky office.
But Joy is unfortunately lacking the emotional potency which seems immediately apparent in past works, particularly in comparison to something as slick as American Hustle. For a film proving no one can sell you (or your product) better than yourself, one wonders what Mangano, who serves as executive producer, makes of Russell’s cinematic concessions. However, during several moments where its creators don’t seem so belabored in their search for the narrative’s meaning, Joy seems refreshing, and important. When it just exists as a film about a woman who believes in her abilities despite a lack of real support from family members and a culture still leaning towards an adamant stance on defined gender and a woman’s ‘place’ on that spectrum, it’s a beautiful film.