by Vadim Rizov
Dir. David O. Russell, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox
David O. Russell spent three months of his post-collegiate years—his self-proclaimed “John Reed period”—teaching in a literacy program for Sandinistas; at other points prior to making feature films, he was a political activist and community organizer. Before The Fighter, he was even a political director of sorts: explicitly so in the Gulf War comedy Three Kings, more diffusely in Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees, which observe the collision of radicals with non-ideological personal turmoil. Having launched a frontal, not particularly subtle attack on big-box materialism and its discontents in the latter, how is it that he’s now celebrating a heroine who finds material success and self-worth via mass-market TV sales? Does Joy find the formerly rebellious, now improbably mainstream filmmaker happy at his corporate work and endorsing the same for everyone?
There’s been something of the make-nice spirit to Russell ever since Huckabees flopped commercially, followed by the leaking of infamous videos of him screaming at Lily Tomlin on-set, and the premature shuttering of production on his next film, Nailed. Russell then plunged into a series of ever higher-grossing crowd-pleasers. The Fighter was mostly another entry in his familiarly abrasive screwball comedy mode, Silver Linings Playbook an intermittently intolerable standard rom-com, and American Hustle his rock bottom, a film in which every actor gives exactly the same performance in the same register. Hustle's ensemble shouting and scenery chewing, recorded in unmotivated swooping camera movements, were aggravatingly dull self-parody: Russell deemed the film his best to date and declared Huckabees his least favorite, demonstrating an inability to discern his own strengths and weaknesses.
Rather than finding Russell idling around the same aesthetic cul-de-sac again, Joy is (mostly) a surprisingly straightforward, three-act rise-fall-rise drama that, after an enjoyably all-over-the-place start, becomes increasingly streamlined and focused. Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence)—holder of more than 100 patents—pulled herself out of debt-clogged working-class life in Long Island by inventing the Miracle Mop, a handy self-wringing item she hawked on the QVC channel. The first attempt at direct sales went poorly, but Mangano talked herself onto the air and sold 18,000 in twenty minutes. Reality isn’t enough for Russell, who ups the number to 50,000; he must surely know any half-interested viewer could discover this and many other discrepancies—the age gap between Jennifer Lawrence and her real-life character; the on-screen version’s two kids to reality’s three; a seemingly entirely fictional third act—after skimming Wikipedia for thirty seconds. (As Katie Calautti has noted in Vanity Fair, Mangano’s personal life is such a closely guarded secret that only she and her family know how much of the film is fictional.)
The film is unmoored from reality in its first scene, an excerpt from a fictional soap opera vaguely in the Dark Shadows vein, pitting villainous Bartholomew against a heroine who can, Force-like, will things into reality with exaggerated hand gestures. It’s an image Joy and the film return to, a you-gotta-believe metaphor for how envisioning success makes it actually occur that’s not to be taken at face value. Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen) sits in her bedroom, narcotized while watching her stories; both her ex-husband Rudy (Robert De Niro, in a non-rote performance, increasingly rare these days) and Joy’s own ex, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), are in the basement. Joy carries her entire family on exasperated shoulders; every childhood sickness and need for a plumber is a real financial threat. Joy’s eureka moment comes when she cuts her hands cleaning up smashed glass and conceives of the Miracle Mop.
“The American dream” is a term the real Mangano regularly uses to describe her own multimillion-dollar success. Russell doesn’t seem so sure, placing greater emphasis on the many unfair, systemic difficulties in her way, and the anomalous improbability of her rags-to-riches story. In flashback, we see Tony explaining his dream of being “the next Tom Jones.” “There’s only one Tom Jones,” Joy says, but Tony’s not dissuaded: “You can’t let the practical get you down.” This is a familiar bromide, but it rings hollow when economic dispossession means the practical is an unavoidable, possibly debilitating obstacle. After Joy’s first on-air appearance, a series of misfortunes increasingly pare away the ensemble players. Joy battles price-gouging parts manufacturers and patent infringement, meeting her previously unseen business antagonist in a Dallas hotel room. Now separated from all friends and family, she emerges from the confrontation in slow motion, like a victorious gunslinger, in an oddly Western-tinged finale.
QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who takes a chance on Joy’s previously unsuccessful product, compares television sales to old Hollywood: Jack Warner wasn’t cynical, he says, Darryl Zanuck wasn’t cynical, and neither is he. This explicitly makes live-sales TV a modern-day Dream Factory, with Joy profitably playing a heightened version of herself on the air. Is this a self-impressed or skeptical metaphor for Hollywood? Has corporate work set Russell free artistically while increasing his paychecks? A movie, of course, is a product like any other, a way to pull oneself up to a higher income bracket—on the evidence of this film, Russell has comfortably settled into his position of power, even if it’s unnerving that the marketplace levels the true value of both mops and movies to the sum of their sales.
Joy is left increasingly alone and alienated on her commercial ascent; age gap or not, Lawrence nails both her early frazzled perseverance and later steely self-reliance. What’s the ultimate value of transforming yourself into a reliably high-performing personal brand? Late in the film, facing down her half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm)—whose negotiations on the company’s behalf threaten its bankruptcy—Joy icily proclaims, “Never speak of my business on my behalf ever again.” The echoes of Michael Corleone seem deliberate: Joy has gained control at the expense of near-total isolation from family and friends.
The third act is a long, strictly business nightmare about possibly crippling bankruptcy, the increasing tension dissipated by Joy’s Dallas showdown, which then flashes forward to her later success as a business matriarch. “She couldn’t know,” the narrator says, over and over, what would await her—the 100 patents she’d think of, the Long Island mansion, etc.—and the feeling is of an extended dream sequence. Given that the film throws at her a Capra-esque series of obstacles so pummeling it’s difficult to conceive how the inevitable happy ending will be arrived at, my thoughts turned to It’s a Wonderful Life. In his greatest films, Capra mercilessly ground down his protagonists, making them really earn a happy ending all the more moving for being entirely unrealistic; in reality, George Bailey jumps off the bridge and dies. Joy Mangano is a success, but she was formerly one of millions deep in debt, dreaming of future wealth arrived at through statistically improbable means. The dispiriting numbers haven’t changed; in its constant toying with the truth and recurring subtextual emphasis on the near-impossibility of realizing up-the-class-ladder aspirations, Joy contextualizes Mangano as an anomaly, an almost-suckered inventor whose success doesn’t mean the invisible hand will operate in most people’s favor.