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Joy: A Manic Cinderella Gets the Job Done

David O. Russell’s quirky hero proves that in his filmmaking, buoyant, messy exuberance has its limits.

20th Century Fox

Writer-director David O. Russell loves the chaotic vitality of everyday life so much, it doesn’t appear to bother him that his vibrant movies don’t resemble reality at all. 

The five-time Oscar-nominee has brought a screwy energy and an almost fairytale-like effervescence to his recent films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, by championing ordinary Joes and Janes who wrestle with external obstacles and their own quirky failings. Russell’s characters may be mired in the mundane, but his movies are impassioned vehicles, teleporting his heroes onto a more exciting, dramatic plane. Russell turns real life into a movie—the kind that has a happy ending and an optimistic belief that none of us is beyond saving.

The filmmaker’s latest, however, suggests that his buoyant, messy exuberance has its limits. Joy features enough of Russell’s usual headlong rush and only-in-America peculiarity that it gives off a consistently fizzy pleasure. But it’s also the most exhausting film from this stage of his career, which restarted with 2010’s critically and commercially successful The Fighter after years of inactivity and aborted projects. Teaming up with Jennifer Lawrence for a third straight movie, Russell wildly doubles-down on everything that earned him acclaim over the last five years. In those other recent outings, he felt swept away by the dizzying swirl of life that he orchestrated—but in Joy, it often feels like he’s just pushing the same old buttons.

Joy is the third of his last four films to be based on a true story, but as has often been the case with Russell, the real Joy is merely a starting point for the filmmaker to weave a more personal tale. Lawrence plays a woman loosely inspired by Joy Mangano, a New York entrepreneur and single mother who invented the Miracle Mop in 1990, soon becoming a fixture of the cable shopping networks QVC and HSN. In the film, the character’s last name is never used and other biographical details are altered. Instead the story focuses on Joy’s attempt to break free of her unsupportive father (a dispiritingly one-note Robert De Niro) and her dream of getting her invention for a self-wringing mop off the ground, aided by QVC’s ambitious head of programming, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper).

Russell’s fudging of the true story has become a trademark of his storytelling. As Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler, who helped oversee Joy, recently admitted to Vanity Fair about the film, “[The plot] threads come from some places in Joy [Mangano]’s real story and some places that came out of his imagination and other places that he just picked up along the way of his life.” That comment is in keeping with a quote Russell gave around the release of 2013’s American Hustle, telling the Los Angeles Times about American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, “Each one of the people in these movies begins in a place where their lives are in shambles. They don’t know if they want to be who they are or if they want to live as they are. And that’s how I felt back before these movies.” Add to this the fact that 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, based on a novel by Matthew Quick about a man (Cooper) suffering from bipolar disorder, reminded Russell of his own bipolar son, and you begin to see that Russell’s recent films are part of a larger internal narrative in which the filmmaker pulled himself back from the brink after he watched his career sputter and his marriage end. Russell is hyperactively compassionate toward his wounded characters, and he never stops seeing their potential for greatness. He identifies with them too closely to give up on them.

With Joy, though, he’s not really sharpening the techniques he’s incorporated in his last three films. Russell’s early career—a period that spanned his 1994 feature debut Spanking the Monkey and encompassed the screwball romance Flirting With Disaster, the caustic Iraq War film Three Kings, and the divisive, poorly-received 2004 existential comedy I Heart Huckabees—was marked by films flush with a cockeyed, often wary perspective. Since then, Russell has focused on more accessible, crowd-pleasing efforts, and Joy can be viewed as a synthesis of what he’s done better in recent years. The colorful supporting characters; the outlandish portrait of a highly dysfunctional family; the roving camera that suggests the filmmaker’s giddy excitement about telling this story; the emotional high points scored to iconic classic rock songs; the sense that the movie is (barely) being held together by the exuberance of its actors; the sheer movie-ness of the entire endeavor: Joy is yet another of Russell’s heart-on-its-sleeve piñatas that’s ready to burst.

A large part of the enjoyment of watching Russell’s films is wrapped up in the anxious suspense of wondering if he can keep his speeding locomotive from careening right off the tracks. Joy’s sense of heightened reality—its inability to calm down its pace for fear that it’ll break its feverish spell over us—makes it feel a bit like a caffeinated bedtime story translated to the big screen. Russell has described Joy as “a Cinderella without a prince” tale of female empowerment, an analogy that makes sense when you consider that Joy must contend with a mean half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm) and his father’s condescending, controlling new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) who serves the role of a wicked stepmother all too well.

Russell extends the fairytale analogy further, giving Joy someone who, in a more conventional story, would be her Prince Charming. After constructing her innovative mop, she meets Neil Walker, who is at first reluctant to put her product on QVC. But after some twists and turns, Joy talks her way onto the channel’s airwaves, which usually features celebrities or polished onscreen hosts, and Russell films these a-star-is-born sequences with all the awestruck majesty of Cinderella going to the ball. (The film reveals a sneaky sense of humor about Joy’s ascendance on QVC: The bright studio lights and the rush of live television are hypnotic to the young woman, even if the whole thing is actually filmed in a chintzy studio in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania.)

These moments at QVC—in which Russell acknowledges how real people’s lives are distorted once you stick a camera in their face—are Joy’s most inspired and subversive, and they’re helped by Cooper’s scene-stealing turn as a true believer in the power of salesmanship. Walker has a rapport with Joy but, intriguingly, it’s not based on sexual chemistry but rather a shared belief in getting what you want out of life by working hard and being smarter than the next guy. It’s a faux-love story built on commerce instead of amorousness, and Lawrence and Cooper display a potent, albeit different, connection than the one they shared in Silver Linings Playbook.

As for Lawrence, her natural tartness cuts against Russell’s Cinderella affectations. She plays Joy as a ground-down former golden child who rediscovers the mojo that made her an inventive little girl, high school valedictorian, and the apple of her loving grandmother’s eye. (The fairy-godmother-like grandma is played by Diane Ladd, who sets her superficial performance to “impossibly ethereal.”) Stuck in an ill-advised marriage to a struggling singer younger (an enormously likeable Edgar Ramirez), Joy has waded through the same sort of discontented adult life that she witnessed her own bickering parents go through when she was a child. At last, she’s ready to forge her own path.

From Winter’s Bone to the Hunger Games films, Lawrence has relished playing characters in dire circumstances who channel an inner strength to persevere. Joy isn’t as outlandish a construction as Lawrence’s characters from Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but that’s essential to the movie’s moderate success: What always made Cinderella so empathetic was how relatable and appealingly ordinary she was amidst the fantastical and trying circumstances surrounding her.

Joy never misses a chance to overemphasize how supposedly magical its character’s journey from suburban single mom to home-shopping mogul is. (This is a film that includes not one but two separate scenes in which fake snow falls from the sky to underline the moment’s otherworldly preciousness.) But Lawrence won’t have any of it. As Joy begins, a title card comes on screen announcing that the film is “Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular.” No doubt Russell comes by his feminist sympathies sincerely, but it’s also a touch patronizing, especially considering that the movie often allows its main character to get through obstacles through convenient or farfetched means. Joy is best taken as a fairytale—a blithe metaphor for self-determination—but Lawrence repeatedly grounds the fantasy in something genuine. In that uncomfortable tension between a filmmaker’s flights of fancy and an actress’s pragmatic grit, Joy might very well speak to a lot of viewers who know that movies aren’t real life, but are willing to pretend otherwise once in a while.  

Grade: B-

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site Listen to their film podcast below.