Joy (2015)

David O. Russell’s recent works have slotted the neurotic capriciousness of his early films, which melded the loose, improvisatory method of post-Cassavetes independent film with classic screwball comedy motifs, into the well-worn grooves of more familiar, popular templates since his resurgence with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Those films remixed the underdog sports drama and the romantic comedy respectively whilst still trying to remain attuned to Russell’s interest in the trying intimacy of families and protagonists whose wits and wills are being tested to the limit by both interior instability and external pressure. American Hustle (2013) was an occasionally impressive, too often uncomfortable attempt to broaden his palette and pay tribute to some beloved ‘70s masters like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman but which never quite located its own dramatic heart. Whereas Joy, his latest, is more indebted to the celebration of suburbanite kitsch in the works of later John Waters or Michael Ritchie, with Frank Capra on the horizon as unexpected spiritual forebear. Capra’s reputation as the most earnest and officiously optimistic of old American film masters doesn’t seem superficially to sit well with Russell’s mocking, wilfully anarchic policy. But they prove united by a fascination with behaviour, the islets of oddball individualism that are people in the American state, and both men seem to share the same streak of intense sentimentality that often underlies a veneer of cynicism. As with American Hustle, here Russell takes a fascinating true story and subjects it to his storytelling whims. The official frame is a biopic about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Magic Mop, a woman who rose from borderline insolvency to become a tycoon. 

Jennifer Lawrence, quickly becoming Russell’s indispensable amanuensis, plays Joy, whose promising inventiveness as a young girl has been overwhelmed by the usual fortunes of being a working class woman, who is at once embraced and suffocated by the dense wad of barely-functional humanity that is her family. Joy’s baggage includes a failed marriage to a self-involved, washed-up singer, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), two kids, a depressed and bedridden mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), who can barely tear her eyes off the TV soap operas she consumes to notice food spills and plumbing leaking into her room, a quietly subsisting grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), who acts as witness and testifier to her granddaughter’s potential, and a father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), who runs a repair shop and has been married multiple times, but can barely maintain a separate existence: soon both her father and ex-husband are living in her basement. Russell sarcastically couches Joy’s tale in counterpoint to the heroines of the soap operas her mother hoovers in: the fantasies of gorgeously dressed, impeccably coiffed, Amazonian queens of high finance or fashion design standing about stiffly contemplating matrimony and murder in fuzzy TV colour provide an opiate for the walking wounded of modern life, whilst Joy sets out to turn them into reality. Of course, Joy will encounter the shark pool lying in wait for the innocent in business adventuring, providing regulation story crises. But Russell’s sneakier thesis here recalls Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2011), as he's more interested in the way weak personalities tend to feed off stronger ones. Joy holds her family together almost through the force of sheer will as well as earning power: many of them repay her with help that swiftly becomes hindrance, deliberately or not. This is in part because each member is equipped with their own dreams and ambitions and spurring causes, but with the ability to turn their sky castles into real ones absent or misaligned in most. 

Russell struggled to turn the Abscam plot into the stuff of farce, but he finds focus and compulsion in Joy’s tale, perhaps because the desires and frustrations that drive her are far more tightly wound in with the kind of sprawling human bustle he loves. The full house fun is the stuff of sitcoms but also recalls You Can’t Take It With You (1937). Where for Capra the embrace of so much madcap humanity was reward in itself, for Joy it’s a responsibility and a punishment too, her lot for constantly underestimating how much the people she loves can screw up and screw her up along for the bargain. She turns the everyday aggravation of her life into an invention of practical genius, sketched out at first with her daughter’s crayons, after cutting up her hand trying to clean up a spill. She asks her father to arrange a meeting with his well-to-do current girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), for the sake of extracting seed money from the wealthy widow: Trudy agrees, after grilling the young wiz with purpose, the pseudo-moralistic belief that money is something that only comes to those imbued with special qualities -- a gag that suggests possibly Russell’s many conflicts with studio paymasters. On Rudy and Trudy’s advice, Joy tries to kill two birds with one stone by commissioning a plastics moulding company, connected with an inventor who holds a similar patent, to make her version. After various exhausting, try-hard attempts to sell her invention in supermarket carparks, Tony, whose incompatibility for Joy as a husband has given way to deft mutual understanding and concern as her friend, takes her to meet with a former work colleague, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). Neil’s become a big shot with a telemarketing firm in the embryonic days of that business, and he, impressed with Joy’s moxie and her mop, agrees to try selling the invention. But Neil’s top salesman fails to demonstrate the invention properly on TV, because he is after all a successful man who doesn’t have to clean his own house, and Joy must fiercely lobby Neil for a chance to sell it herself. This finally delivers success to Joy, but her trials aren't over yet.

Russell makes his canniest use of Lawrence and Cooper so far here, making Lawrence the stoic, nuanced, determined eye in the storm of eccentricity, and casting Cooper as a smooth, professionally calm salesman in direct contrast to his over-the-top FBI agent in American Hustle. Russell’s most inspired sleight-of-hand here is to make the corner of the world Neil inhabits the calmest and dreamiest, existing as it does at the nexus of retail and show business, through which Cooper dances as a suited Wizard of Oz orchestrating celebrity salespeople and banks of telephone operators with seasoned aplomb, conducting all like the music of the spheres in the one place where everything works like a media-formed mind like Joy’s thinks it should. This is the zone Joy has to learn to operate in with similar mastery, so removed from the bluster of her home life that it’s the overwhelming solitude before the camera that shocks her more than anything. Russell takes the usual cues of the underdog drama, like the agonising moment of freeze-up Joy experiences when first on camera, and the all-is-lost pivot when she is assailed by patronising Rudy and vengeful Trudy following an apparently irrecoverable disaster, and cranks them up to eleven, emphasising these melodramatic devices in a way that points out their exaggeration and their ritualised purpose. Even in the context of a true story of success, Russell nudges the viewer to be aware that this isn’t really how things work, in a manner that actually recalls Capra more sharply than one might think: Capra similarly used glib devices to spring Jefferson Smith and George Bailey from enclosing nightmares, to point out how the world can destroy people.

Joy’s stern, critical half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) constantly grumbles about having her own big ideas and is eager to be sent off as emissary for her sister’s fledgling business by their father, but ends up creating an even worse mess, because she, like most of the rest of the family, is used to obeying voices on phones and other signposts of status and power. The last act sees Joy contending with people who would try to steal her invention and her money, forcing her to prove she’s not simply another girl who dreamt big but didn’t have the stomach to fight. It goes without saying that Russell, in tackling Mangano’s story, seems uncomfortable with making a regulation Horatio Alger up-by-the-bootstraps success story, selling the officially prescribed message that invention and innovation can make you rich, and so he labours to point out the headwinds Joy must push against, created by a competitive, greedy, sexist, self-deluding world. Joy’s native canniness, her refusal to suffer an injustice and unwillingness to sit around and wait for the approval of the invisible hand of the free market to do her a good turn, keeps her armoured. But it also leaves her often painfully lonely, her willingness to stand up for herself a rare one in a sphere of life, Russell intimates, where people mostly prefer to eddy in their own little spaces, safe from grand passions and disasters. Russell wants us to enjoy Joy’s success story, but also to take heed of the way it represents a form of radicalisation, one of John Lennon’s fucking peasants standing up.

And yet moments of warmth and galvanic feeling clearly compel Russell far more than thematic thrust, the way Tony gracefully tries to help gift Joy a chance without a selfish motive, and the clumsy but well-meaning way her father apologises to her after being forced to witness Joy’s auto-da-fe in apparent ruination, as well as Joy’s own panic in realising her daughter has just seen her mother completely stripped of dignity. Joy never aims for realism, delighting in the fetishized tawdriness not just of, say, a pair of pharmacy-bought glasses hovering under a stiff perm, but in casting major movie actors and slathering them in such paraphernalia: he turns the mundane into drag act, a theatrical zone where people wear their identities instead of actually owning themselves. Lawrence’s beloved ornery streak off-camera gives unacknowledged but definite force to the spectacle of the moment’s hottest star playing a woman whose appeal as a manufacturer and seller lay in eye-level connection with the public, the exact awareness of just what would appeal to other ordinary people struggling through the day. Russell, like the Coen Brothers, doesn’t have much actual liking for ordinary people, but his caricatures vibrate more, not simply to goad the protagonist but infesting with their own unruly presence, mould spores in the petri dish of life. There are too many aspects for Russell to handle with any fullness, though, like Terry’s emergence from her cocoon after falling for the Haitian plumber (Jimmy Jean-Louis) who comes to the house, and Mimi’s passing. 

The chief problem with the film is the half-heartedness of some of Russell’s stylistic impositions, the feeling that he’s trying to offset some of his embarrassment in offering a feel-good story by wrapping it in airy affectations at points: the superfluous, self-conscious narration offered by Mimi who dies half-way through, and ineffectual interludes of a kind of lyricism where the camera drifts dreamily over suburban houses, shopfront displays, and advertising hoardings, or shifts into mimicry of faded-out 8mm footage. This kind of visual drizzle recalls too many American auteurs mimicking the likes of Lynch and Van Sant in trying to extract surrealist beauty from the tacky and ephemeral detritus of a nearly ahistorical consumer culture. The climax is relishable, but the gimmicky flash-forwards used in the postscript feel laboured, dotting Is and crossing Ts that didn’t need spelling out at all, and assuring us our heroine remains ever so 'umble. But at its best Russell’s direction is lithe and dusts proceedings with a duplicitous blend of intensity and wistfulness. Lawrence is in total control throughout, expertly making Joy’s manifold phases of being seem like aspects of the same person – stressed-out matriarch, primly suited and victimised desk clerk, bloodied, hapless hausfrau, shotgun-blasting ball of frustration, raging neo-Medea, and finally black leather-clad moral gunslinger advancing for a showdown with a cowboy-hatted enemy in a way that’s far more exciting than anything she got up to playing Katniss Everdeen. Joy is far from an unqualified success, but, like its heroine, makes you respect it and stick with it even when it threatens to fall on its face.

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