JOY: David O. Russell’s Wacky Dramedy, Starring Jennifer Lawrence, is His First Weak Picture

joy_posterJoy, the new serio-comedy about Joy Mangano, the real-life woman who invented the self-wringing Miracle Mop, is one of David O. Russell’s most troubled and problematic films, perhaps manifest in the fact that four different editors have worked on the footage.

Is the film trying to do too much?  Is it the uneasy mixture of genres and subgenres, including straight bio-picture, wacky family farce, tearful melodrama, and message film about female empowerment, celebrating ordinary women who, through talent and perseverance, become extraordinary.


JOY – Trailer

Thematically, but not stylistically an auteur, Russell has been preoccupied with the family as a necessary, ubiquitous, but wacky institution. Like all of his films, at the center of Joy is a warm depiction of a dysfunctional family. this time around a three generational one, headed by a single grandmother (played by Diane Ladd), who serves as the saga’s narrator, introducing the characters and connecting various events, when the narrative fails to do so in more conventionally dramatic ways.

joy_6_lawrenceReuniting for the third time with his muse, the multi-talented Jennifer Lawrence–who is the best thing in the film, but even she cannot resolve the tale’s inherent problems–Russell has written a scenario that may have too many strands for its own good.  Admittedly, the story itself may be too goofy, too strange for a linear and conventional biopic–and nothing that Russell has done is ordinary and conventional.

In a previous life, Bridesmaids co-writer, Annie Mumolo, was hired to write the script and Kristen Wiig, Mumolo’s producing partner, was considering playing Joy.  (Recently Mumolo won a “story by” credit in a WGA arbitration)

joy_5_lawrence_cooperSharply uneven, Joy struggles with establishing the right tone for its many individual scene, not to mention the problem of lending the saga a unified vision.  It’s a movie in which some of the parts are good, but ultimately do not add up to a coherent whole.

Artistically, the movie, which cost about $60 million, is a step down for Russell, who has been experiencing an extraordinary creative height over the past half a decade, earning three Best Picture and Director Oscar nominations, beginning with The Fighter (2010), followed by Silver Linings Handbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013).

joy_4_lawrence_de_niroLawrence, who won her Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook and was nom­inated again in 2014 in the Supporting Actress category for the director’s American Hustle, is well cast and is decidedly the best element in the film

The quirky dramedy, loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, the real-life QVC icon and inventor of the Miracle Mop, is the first biographical part that Lawrence is playing, a down-to-earth Italian-American housewife from Long Island who became a hugely productive entrepreneur, though hers was not a story of an overnight success.

joy_3_lawrenceThe tale juggles Joy’s rise and fall and rise with episodes of her surrounding extended family. In the first scene, Jo’s father, Rudi (De Niro), is brought to Joy’s home because no one else would have him.  A divorced man, who’s now running a garage, he relates in flashback his second brief marriage, and then escapades as a ladies’ man (an aging gigolo?), how he got involved with a rich Italian femme named Trudi (Isabella Rossellini).

When first met, Joy still lives with her former husband, Tony, (Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who’s underwhelming here due to the writing), a Tom Jones impersonator, and their two children.  It’s a full, overcrowded household.  Both men (who are no-good) occupy uneasily the basement of her house.  Joy’s half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), also lives in the house, and most of what she does is to discourage Joy with her skeptical negativism. (In the very first scene, we see the sisters as young girls, and their varying personalities become clear).

joy_2_lawrence_de_niroMeant to be a goody, multi-gen­erational fable about a woman who, against great odds, reinvented herself–not once but twice–Joy is trying to do too much, a movie that attempts be too many things for different potential audiences. Reportedly, Russell abandoned some of the biographical elements and made the main character a composite of several female entrepreneurs.

joy_1_lawrenceHe also added a new story line, turning the soap opera, which Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen) always watches, into a recurring plot device (hiring real soap stars like Susan Lucci and Donna Mills to star in it).  Though colorful, these sequences disrupt the involvement in the main, more interesting, story.

Russell also built a role for Lawrence’s Silver Linings Handbook co-star, Bradley Cooper, well cast here as the head of the fledgling QVC network where Joy goes to sell her mop. If memory serves, Cooper is allotted an extended monologue (the film’s longest speech) in a broadcast,  where he points out to Joy how his pitch women (including Joan Rivers, who’s played by her real-life daughter, Melissa Rivers) do their jobs. He goes on to make predictions about sales figures, which miraculously materialize in almost magical fashion.

Lawrence, an actress who’s particularly adept at expressing discontent and acting out on it, plays Joy as a woman who won’t be denied, either in a climactic scene in a Dallas hotel room where Joy coolly faces down a competitor (Alexander Cook) trying to hijack her business, or in a sequence at QVC when she sells her own product on camera, a strategy that initially spells disaster–until she gets an unexpected lifeline.

Reportedly, at the last minute (not trusting his material as is), Russell also added that Haitian plumber to the script as a love interest for Joy’s mom (played by Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis).

Relatively speaking, Joy is the film’s healthiest, most rational, and most driven character; all those around her are too semi-crazy, totally neurotic, or self-absorbed.    Russell’s mise-en-scene emphasizes this fact in the way that he visually posits his heroine against various members of her family (sort of a Greek chorus), who always seem to have an objection to (or raise issue about) what she is doing.  Her grandma is one of the few people who never loses faith in Joy–no matter her (temporary) failings and setbacks.  The other members just offer bad advice and ingratitude.

Joy is the first Russell picture that tries too hard to entertain (which explains why he throws all kinds of touches into the film, including  a silly musical number, in which Joy and her husband stand on a theater stage with fake snow, singing “Something Stupid.”

An actress of incredible range, Lawrence bails out the missteps of Joy, whose ultimate purpose (and possible success) might be in serving as showcase for her huge talent and charisma.  She is a natural actress of boundless energy, whose inner restlessness always bursts out to amazingly positive effects.