Film review: Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro in David O. Russell’s ‘Joy’
If you liked David O. Russell’s ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, then you’ll like ‘Joy’ even more. Both have their share of quirky working-class misfits but unlike ‘Silver’, Joy is based on a true story. Russell is on much firmer ground here in his half-fact, half-fictional chronicle of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop, who parlayed a simple but clever household item into a multi-million dollar fortune.
Since little is known about Joy’s personal life, Russell conjured up his own take on what Joy’s family might have been like. Joy did have an ex-husband Tony, who lived in the basement of the family home even after they were divorced. Russell imagines Tony as a failed nightclub singer and his fictional take works well, as the character adds to the necessary comic relief. Slightly less successful is Russell’s portrait of Joy’s mother who is addicted to soap operas. Russell reproduces the soaps in a series of flashbacks, beginning with a black and white show from the 1950s. The joke wears thin after a while and the mother never rises above the level of caricature (the mother’s attraction to a Haitian plumber doesn’t really go anywhere either).
Joy receives emotional support from her father Rudy, who owns a failing auto body repair shop in the neighborhood. Robert De Niro plays the father as an over the top, irascible curmudgeon who ends up moving into Joy’s house after breaking up with a girlfriend. De Niro shows off his usual shtick coping with a significant anger management problem and here often battles things out with ex-husband Tony. Diane Ladd is entrusted with narrator duties as the supportive grandmother who believes that Joy is one day destined to consummate her rags to riches daydreams.
Peggy, the half-sister, seeks to upstage Joy whenever she gets the chance. Peggy is the only character whom Russell invented completely out of whole cloth and doesn’t work well at all, as there’s really nothing redeeming about her.
Things really begin to pick up after the introduction of the quirky family members. Rudy begins dating Trudy (artfully played by Isabella Rossellini), an Italian widow who bankrolls Joy’s dream with an inheritance courtesy her late husband, a successful businessman. In fact, it’s on Trudy’s small yacht, that Joy comes up with the idea for the Miracle Mop, after she must swab the deck following an accident involving red wine.
Joy (the movie and the character) becomes more and more interesting as Tony is able to have her meet with someone who works for QVC, the fledgling cable TV channel that turns Joy into a star. Joy gets to meet the go-getter QVC executive Neil Walker (played pretty straight this time by Bradley Cooper), who proceeds to sabotage Joy’s quest for success by having one of his TV sales agent’s blow the presentation for the Miracle Mop on live TV. Having convinced Joy to manufacture 50,000 mops anticipating a successful broadcast, Walker finally gives Joy another chance and she becomes a big success after doing the presentation herself on TV.
You would think that this would be the end of the story, but happily it isn’t! Russell knows he needs a dark moment at the end of Act II and for his protagonist to accomplish what she set out to do at the beginning of the narrative. Joy must do battle with the manufacturer in California who has been unfairly raising his prices and throwing her for a loss. In the best scene in the film, Joy discovers that the company has been using her design illegally but ends up being arrested for trespassing. Back home, Trudy’s lawyer advises her that she must file for bankruptcy after Peggy signs an agreement with the manufacturer without Joy’s knowledge. Joy moves past her darkest moment and travels to Texas where she confronts the owner responsible for cheating her and gets him to sign an agreement, paying her back all her royalties plus interest.
What makes Joy so interesting is that she must overcome three major obstacles before claiming victory: pitching the Miracle Mop on her own; uncovering the misappropriation of her design by the manufacturer; and successfully negotiating a contract with the manufacturer’s owner after discovering he has committed fraud. Just when it appears she’s successful, a whole new set of obstacles appear which she must overcome, before declaring her ‘final victory’.
The first third of Joy is hit or miss—but once Joy’s own story begins in earnest, the viewer is hooked. Joy’s rag to riches story is feel good just about all the way. The success story of this talented woman should only be tempered by the fact that part of her success was due to the intervention of someone who inherited quite a bit of money. There are plenty of other Joys out there with talent that only need a connection to bankroll them. In this case, luck (in part) was on Joy’s side.