Director: David O Russell
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Isabella Rossellini
Before you see a single frame of Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, her third collaboration with director David O Russell, a pompous title card declares it to be a film “Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular.” To the movie’s credit, at least it’s upfront about not being a run-of-the-mill biopic. There’s no ‘based on a true story’ nonsense here. But in roughly two hours, you’ll realise that the best indication as to Joy’s impending and frankly inevitable derailment came at this very moment. Because in his misguided attempt to make what he surely believes is a tribute to an entire gender, David O Russell lost sight of only thing he shouldn’t have: Joy.
The movie is about Joy, she of the “one in particular.” More precisely, it’s about Joy Mangano, who, in the ‘90s invented the Miracle Mop, an ingenious doohickey that enables the user to rinse, wash and utilise said mop without ever having to actually do any of those things. Everyone, at some point has used a variation of Joy Mangano’s invention, and that, in itself is a fascinating idea. But I digress.
Joy is played by Jennifer Lawrence . And in a beautifully cinematic opening voiceover by her grandmother, we are introduced to a cast of trademark David O Russell characters. Calling them that, however, is not entirely accurate. Russell is a great writer of characters, but here, he creates just one. Every person that appears in this film, it seems, exists only in service of Joy.
Her mother lives on a diet of soap operas, her father is in eternal search of love and her half-sister is the unrelenting voice of pessimism inside her head. In fact, that’s the case with all of them. Every character in this film is essentially a voice inside Joy’s head, the id, ego and super-ego all rolled into one. A cacophony of rational and absurd thought that would make Dr Freud avert his eyes in disbelief. They exist solely to provide exposition.
Only Robert De Niro, who plays Joy’s father, has an arc to speak of. His telephonic meet cute with Isabella Rossellini’s hilariously named Trudy and the colourful insults he hurls at his ex-wife, played by Virginia Madsen, add a much-needed kick up this movie’s butt. In the same conversation he finds room to call her an ‘insane asylum person’ and ‘creature from the black lagoon.’
The rest of the film, sadly, is a mess so bad even the Miracle Mop would have a difficult time cleaning it. Russell wisely chooses to ignore certain aspects to Joy’s story. He is not concerned with patent disputes and the intricacies of mop mechanics. As always, he preoccupies himself with writing his characters into quirky and quotable scenes. But when only two moments in your two-hour movie stand out, you have a problem.
Fed up with her existence, Joy finally decides to follow her passions. Her scene of epiphany - the one where she gets her million-dollar idea - is far more dialed back than it has any right to be. Movies have taught us that such scenes are usually accompanied by rousing music, slow motion, trippy visuals or maybe even all of them combined. But not here.
Joy takes her idea to Trudy, her father’s new girlfriend, who also happens to have been left a large lump of cash by her late husband Morris. In the only scene of the film that lives up to the title, Trudy presents Joy with her condition: To get the money for her idea she must answer “Morris’ 4 questions of financial worthiness.” Both Jennifer Lawrence and Isabella Rossellini are magnetic in this scene. It lasts about three minutes.
And then, after about an hour or so of treading familiar territory, the movie shifts gears with the precision of a ramshackle jalopy, moving along, but only just. Joy takes her prototype to the offices of QVC (read, teleshopping) and in bounds Bradley Cooper, completing the David O Russell trifecta.
But even his movie star performance can’t save the film. And that’s after Jennifer Lawrence has been giving it all she’s got scene after scene. Not for one second can Russell’s passion or the cast’s dedication to the important story be doubted. The ideas are all there, and most of them are brilliant. It’s just that they don’t come together as a cohesive whole. This makes the film feel episodic and disjointed. The over-reliance on fantasy robs the self-empowerment fable at its core.
David O Russell has made an oddly old-fashioned movie, complete with surreal touches, absurd humour, over-the-top theatricality and a troupe of actors ready to lay down their lives for him. And unless I’m mistaken, this also has to be the only movie to have a Greek chorus in the form of a late ‘70s soap opera. But by the time Jennifer Lawrence has expertly chopped her locks, it’s too late. The film has been off the rails for the last 20 minutes. 20 movie-destroying minutes, obliterating everything positive it has offered so far.
Russell is a genius. It usually takes just one great movie to be called that. He has three. Joy doesn’t work and that’s disappointing more than anything else. After a hat trick of success with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (the last two being tonally and visually similar to this one), the expectations were really high. He will definitely go on to make another great film, Lawrence will go on to win more Oscars (not for this). Life will go on. Joy Mangano, however, will unlikely get another biopic.
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The writer tweets @NaaharRohan .