Joy (2015): David O. Russell’s Biopic–Another Meditation on the American Dream of Success and Failure

David O. Russell’s eighth feature, Joy, probes four decades in the upward-moving life of a single-mom-turned-business-magnate, played by his muse, Jennifer Lawrence.

The movie explores how daring, resilience and the persistence of vision transform individuals from being ordinary into living some extraordinary moments of creation, striving and love.

The tale tries to answer such relevant–and perhaps uniquely American–questions as: What keeps a person trying and trying then faltering and then knocking their head against the wall until the point of success?  And what then transforms all the exasperating ups and downs that follow on the heels of success into a sustaining sense of joy and discovery?

Based loosely on the life and rise of inventor and home shopping star Joy Mangano, the genre-blurring story of JOY follows the wild path of a hard-working but half-broken family and the young girl who ultimately becomes its shining matriarch and leader in her own right.  Driven to create, but also to take care of those around her, Joy experiences betrayal, treachery, the loss of innocence and the scars of love as she finds the steel and the belief to follow her once-suppressed dreams.  The result is an emotional and human comedy about a woman’s rise – navigating the unforgiving world of commerce, the chaos of family and the mysteries of inspiration while finding an unyielding source of happiness.

Joy is a follow-up of O. Russell’s The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, which between them garnered 25 Oscar nominations.

Each feature was based on an unforgettable array of cinematic characters yet also honed in on a singularly compelling idea, the allure and trials of re-inventing oneself.

Joy takes that same idea somewhere new – as Russell takes on the question of how one person, confronted with madcap circumstances, endless obstacles and a long road of self-searching, forges a meaningful, joyful life.  While Joy’s life moves forward, the film’s style hearkens back in time, revisiting and redesigning the craftsmanship and melodrama of classical Hollywood cinema for our image-laden times.

The film stars Academy Award® winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games series) as Joy, in a multi-hued portrait that spans from youth to her 40s, from dreams deferred to fighting for her honor to striving for self-fulfillment.

Says Lawrence: “This is a story about so many things.  It’s not just the story of Joy. It’s about family, imagination, faith in yourself, about the ruthlessness of success and what it means when you find it. I love most of all how much Joy changes.  I loved taking her from vulnerable and self-deprecating to cold and strong, and I loved that she turns into a real matriarch of her family.”

Joining Lawrence is a typically wide-ranging Russell ensemble including Robert De Niro as Joy’s hot-tempered yet hopelessly romantic father; Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s ex-husband, a struggling musician living in the basement … with her father; Diane Ladd as Joy’s insightful and influential grandmother; Virginia Madsen as Joy’s soap-opera addicted mother; Isabella Rossellini as her father’s well-off Italian lover; Dascha Polanco as Joy’s life-long friend and confidante,; Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s rivalrous sister and Bradley Cooper as the mogul-style home shopping executive who becomes both Joy’s ally and adversary.

JOY joins a long legacy of films about chasing dreams of success in business and family — but it does so in its own comedic, emotional and inventive ways.  The story began with the unlikely but real-life narrative of Joy Mangano, who in the 1990s became a new kind of television star and entrepreneurial powerhouse with a series of household inventions, including the famed, “self-wringing” Miracle Mop, which kicked-off the Long Island single mother’s ongoing business empire.

The story – with its everyday contours but outsized dreams — grabbed the attention of David O. Russell, always drawn to that very specific mix.  He saw in it the blossoming of a gutsy, ingenious woman and an inspiring story of someone taking a chance on long-buried dreams while never losing the sense of duty to family at her core.  But most of all, he saw a chance to tell a more universal story, one about the truly kaleidoscopic nature of human striving and all the multicolored shards and fragments that go into creating a satisfying, spirited life amid the comedy and tragedy of the human condition.

Says Russell:  “The idea that drew me was how do you tell the story of more than 40 years of a life, from the magic of childhood, through marriage, divorce and single parenthood, to going back to fulfilling on those childhood dreams?  How do you tell the story of a person’s soul – and how that soul is comprised of all the people we love, the ideas we have, the things we cherish?  JOY brings together all these pieces. You have trauma and love.  You have a girl who grows up in her father’s metal garage and in her mother’s refuge of soap operas filled with strong women.  You have a dreamer ex-husband in the basement who is still a friend and a loving sister who is an envious rival.  And you have a cable television station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that becomes a factory of dreams.  In the middle of it all, you see Joy develop a quietly fierce determination that sees her through.”

Russell also saw JOY as the chance to tell a different kind of rise-to-riches story: the story of a business magnate’s emergence from a blue-collar domestic world still oft-ignored in cinematic epics.

“Half or more of the movie is based on Joy Mangano, and the other half is based on daring women I’ve been aware of and read about for many years,” Russell explains.  “That includes Lillian Vernon, who started the first big mail order catalogs for household products.  It also includes numerous other women I’ve known, including some my mother’s friends, who dared to start ventures, some that succeeded and some that failed.  I am fascinated by the kind of spirit that drives someone to start a venture out of their home and try to break a new path for themselves and their families.  So many women throughout history have felt dead ended and had to carve out their own opportunities.”

As it always does for Russell, the story expanded in numerous directions in the midst of developing the screenplay – touching on themes that span from the nature of creativity to the dreamscape of television to how to win a business war — but the core of it remained steadfast.

Says Russell: “The real question that Joy has to confront as she grows up is how to remain true to herself.  How does anybody remain true to themselves as you come into the many compromises of adult life? And, equally important, how do you keep that heartbeat of the magical life and dreams you had when you were a child?”

Even as he braided Mangano’s real life with strands of fiction, Russell kept in close communication with the inventor who continues to be a major player in television shopping and is now the President of Ingenious Designs LLC.  Mangano says the process was remarkable to witness.

“To be part of David’s inspiration was something so special I can’t even really describe it,” Mangano says.  “He is shockingly insightful.  As we started talking, there were things about my life I would have passed right by, but they would stop him and he’d want to explore more. I could actually see him crafting his vision.  It was among the most amazing experiences in my life collaborating with him. My personal stories became a canvas for him to create something universal.”

Russell has always been a keen chronicler of how families knit together in both absurdly funny and sustaining ways and Mangano’s eccentric parents and relationship especially intrigued him with her ex-husband.  As a filmmaker, Russell has often explored family life with a tone perhaps more associated with Russian literature –one in which childhood and death, marriage and divorce, happiness and loneliness, ecstasy and betrayal, wealth and poverty – are all part of the same funny-sad tapestry of human experience none of us can escape. While Joy’s ambition is sparked from within her own creative mind and dreams, it can’t ever be separated from the madcap relationships that surround her – nor her never-ending urge to care for her loved ones, no matter how flawed or vexing.

“Joy was honored and loved by her family but they were also an obstacle at times,” Russell notes.  “In all my films, I’ve been interested in the ways that families can be off-kilter and broken yet also be fertile soil for what blooms the brightest. Joy’s family members are loving in their own way and they’re limited in their way.  But even their limitations end up making Joy a fiercer person. She’s challenged to hold onto her truths from very early on and she learns to become that resilient voice in the room, the one who is looking out for everybody.  I think there’s something that is very beautiful about families, even when they are complicated and human and troubled.  And part of the joy of Joy is her forgiving nature and ability to nurture a sense of love in spite it all.”

The driving force of taking care of her family with the fullness of her being became part of what sets JOY apart in the annals of movies about aspirational entrepreneurs and fiercely independent women.  Joy’s journey is only partly about finding the steel to go after what she desires, the other is about figuring out how to do a circus-worthy balancing act with everything else that matters to her.

Says Russell:  “To me the extraordinary thing about Joy is that even as she becomes the boss of this family, of this demanding, never-quiet enterprise, she is still a tender-hearted, forgiving person.  She finds a way to carry her whole family with her. She had that spirit when she was ten years old.  She didn’t want to leave people behind and she’s not going to leave them behind when she’s 45 and running an empire either.  She has to change in surprising ways, but she also stays true to that part of herself.”

Because the film is created as a lived experience of Joy’s up-and-down search for happiness, JOY is also Russell’s most visually inventive film. Joy’s everyday reality – and the constant tug-of-war she faces between necessity and achievement – is punctuated in bursts by hyper-melodramatic soap opera sequences, song-and-dance, surreal daydreams and bewitching snowflakes.

After learning that Joy Mangano’s mother was a soap-opera devotee, Russell found soap operas to be an intriguing reflective device, a fantastical mirror of Joy’s realization that she could break out of the barriers of her life and follow a bigger, bolder path.  “The plot lines of soap operas are worthy of Russian literature themselves,” Russell muses.  “In the soap opera world all these big, gothic, melodramatic things happen.  People are constantly speaking about betrayal, treachery, money and death – so it’s like Gogol, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.  But soap operas are also often about bold women and aspiration, and that’s why they strike a chord.”

Another thread in the film’s tapestry is the rise of television shopping, which presaged our tech-driven world in which all the rules of business have radically changed with the Kickstarter generation.  “QVC was a precursor of the Internet,” Russell observes.  “It was one of the first places you could interact 24 hours a day because all you had to do was just dial in and the phones were always manned.”

Even as Joy’s Miracle Mop becomes a QVC mega-bestseller and its own kind of miracle in her life, her problems don’t vanish.  On the contrary — and this was essential to Russell.  JOY is an exuberant tale of a woman’s ascent but also honest about the costs and limitations of success.

“I wanted the film to look beyond Joy’s initial success, because it doesn’t end there,” Russell comments.  “Problems never end, so you still have to keep bringing that spirit of overcoming. Acknowledging the problems of success doesn’t mean you aren’t grateful to be successful, but no matter who you are, I think we all have that fear that you could still lose what you have at any moment and you still have to juggle all manner of tough situations and personalities to keep going.  The exciting thing was to show how Joy develops the maturity it takes to do that.  The hardest and most beautiful thing in life can be to keep showing up with that kind of willingness and resilience.”


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